Sweeping Black maternal health reforms proposed in Congress

African American moms could get better health care under a series of proposals recently introduced in Congress.

This week, the congressional Black Maternal Health Caucus introduced a sprawling legislative package aimed at improving health outcomes for mothers and addressing glaring racial disparities in maternal health.

Dubbed the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, the package includes 12 bills addressing a wide range of issues, from studying COVID-19’s effects on pregnant people to funding community-based organizations that work to improve maternal health.

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama is a founding member of the Black Maternal Health Caucus. Her district, which covers part of Birmingham and most of Alabama’s Black Belt, is the state’s only majority-Black congressional district. She will introduce one of the bills in the Momnibus package.

“I’m excited about being a part of this because I realize how preventable these deaths are and that we’ve got to do a better job of providing the information and the quality healthcare that’s needed in order to save lives,” Sewell told Reckon this week.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the maternal mortality crisis affecting African-American women, especially here in Alabama where some of the highest rates of maternal mortality exist in the country.”

America’s rate of maternal death – highest among wealthy countries and rising – has been the subject of public attention and news coverage in recent years.

Read more: Deaths from pregnancy and childbirth are often preventable

But even the high rate of maternal death disguises a much more stark divide. Black women in America are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. Maternal death rates for other birthing people of color are also disproportionately high.

Comparatively speaking, income and education do not protect Black women from catastrophic outcomes. Wealthy Black women still die at higher rates than white women of the same economic background.

Read more: Black, poor, Southern: One of the deadliest demographics for pregnant women in America

U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina, co-chair and co-founder of the caucus, said in a statement that “no mother should have to go through pregnancy, labor and delivery, or the postpartum period without  the respectful care and comprehensive support they need and deserve. Together we can – and must – take the bold actions that will be required to save our moms, end disparities and achieve true maternal health justice.”

The Momnibus is an expanded version of similar legislation introduced last year, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s version added three new pieces of legislation aimed at COVID-19 data collection, improved access to vaccines, and reducing the effects of climate change on mothers and babies.

Part of the Momnibus package is Sewell’s bill, which would provide funding to increase vaccination rates among mothers and reduce racial disparities in who gets vaccinated.

“It shouldn’t be that you have to know someone who knows someone to get a vaccine, or that vaccination sites are only offered in high-traffic areas,” she said.

“This is an access issue – making sure people can actually get the vaccine – but it’s also an outreach effort, acknowledging the very real problems African Americans have had with medical exploitation,” she said.

Sewell said Black constituents have told her medical professionals often don’t believe their complaints about pain or other pregnancy complications. Some expressed their worry over no longer having access to a nearby a hospital with a labor and delivery unit. Seven rural hospitals in Alabama have shut down in the last 12 years, and more have closed their labor and delivery departments to save money.

“There’s a collective concern among the rural women, the women who live in the Black Belt in my district,” about a lack of access to maternal care providers. Part of the new Momnibus would allocate funding to build up and diversify the maternal healthcare workforce, and provide training on topics like racial bias and discrimination for healthcare workers.

Read more: Panel finds 70% of Alabama pregnancy deaths preventable

Sewell said the best way for people interested in the bill to get involved is to not only contact their Congressional representatives, but also to think about sharing their own stories publicly around maternal health.

“We learn from other people’s experiences, and I’m hoping people will come forward and be more public about their own experiences,” she said. “Be advocates in your own community.”

Momnibus highlights:

  • Funding for maternal housing, transportation and nutrition and other needs that influence maternal health outcomes
  • Funding for community-based organizations that work to improve maternal health and promote equity
  • Commissioning of a study to look at maternal health risks for pregnant and postpartum veterans
  • Incentives to grow and diversify the pregnancy and childbirth workforce
  • Improved data collection around maternal health to better understand what’s causing poor outcomes
  • Support for maternal mental health, substance use disorders and incarcerated mothers
  • Funding for telehealth and other digital tools for underserved areas
  • Funding for federal programs to address the risks and effects of COVID-19 during and after pregnancy
  • Support for new payment models that incentivize high-quality maternity care and non-clinical support
  • Funding for community-based initiatives to reduce climate change-related risks to mothers and babies
  • Support for maternal vaccinations

The Reckon Report.
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