The federal government should follow Utah's lead to ensure that America has healthy mothers and healthy babies, a national children's advocate said Thursday.

"Prenatal care is critical. A baby born to a mother who's had no prenatal care is three times more likely to be born at a low birth weight," Dana Hughes, senior health specialist for the Children's Defense Fund, Washington, D.C., said in an interview Thursday morning."A low-birth-weight baby is 40 times more likely to die before his first birthday. Those who survive are at a substantially greater risk of having a lifelong disability."

The problem, Hughes said, is measured not only in human suffering, but in economics.

"A baby born at a low birth weight is more likely to need expensive hospitalization (up to $1,000 a day), as compared to $1,500 for complete prenatal care services."

Hughes was keynote speaker Thursday at second-day sessions of the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies regional conference, sponsored by the HMHB Coalition of Utah and the Greater Utah Chapter, March of Dimes.

The conference, continuing Friday at the Red Lion hotel, is focused on "Education and Politics for Healthy Babies."

Hughes praised Utah for raising the Medicaid eligibility level to cover more poor pregnant women and their infants, and for creating a program to give assistance to pregnant women who are just above the poverty level.

"Utah should be commended, but what is needed is a national program to ensure that all Americans received needed health care," Hughes stressed.

Today, access to health care is dependent on one's insurance status. And according to Hughes, millions of Americans have neither.

"Some 38 million Americans under age 65 have no health insurance; another 25 million have limited insurance that doesn't cover all their health needs," she said. "In 1986 there were 20 million Americans who reported needing health care who had difficulty obtaining it for financial reasons. Some 43 million had no regular source of health care."

Ironically, the vast majority of people who are uninsured are employed.

A study of the federal General Accounting Office showed that only one-third of uninsured women received adequate prenatal care, compared to 81 percent of insured women.

Both babies and mothers are suffering because of it.

Other speakers Thursday highlighted rural health issues, specifically "Can We Afford to Keep Health Care Down on the Farm?" Health care for minority groups was discussed during afternoon sessions.