NC legislators aim to reduce Black maternal deaths

Democrats in the NC legislature are sponsoring bills meant to improve Black maternal health that mirror parts of the federal Momnibus Act championed by U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Charlotte Democrat.

The United States has one of the worst records for maternal death in the developed world. Black women in the U.S. are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related health problems as white women.

“The U.S. is one of only 13 countries where maternal mortality is on the rise, and racial disparities drive this crisis,” Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham Democrat, said at a news conference Monday.

According to the NC Maternal Mortality Review Committee, 63% of maternal deaths in North Carolina from 2014-15 were preventable.

Senate bill 632 and House bill 507 would set up a task force looking at maternity care and births in the COVID-19 pandemic; study cooperation between military veterans’ health care facilities and non-veteran facilities in delivery of maternal care; set up a task force that would recommend ways to address how  transportation, housing, environment, and other factors influence maternal health; and develop a grant program for community organizations focused on preventing Black maternal deaths and severe illnesses.

Dr. Narges Farahi, leader of the Maternal Child Health program at UNC Family Medicine, said she has seen how illnesses in mothers lead to illnesses in children “and lost opportunities for families.”

The pregnancy-related mortality rate does not improve for Black women with college degrees as it does for white women, she said. Black women with college degrees are five times more likely to die than white women with college degrees.

Studies have shown that “being pregnant while Black is more likely to be a fight for health, wellness and life for mothers and for their children. This shines a light on the tremendous impact racism has on the health of Black women before, during, and after pregnancy,” Farahi said.

The Senate bill was assigned to the chamber’s Rules Committee, an indication that it is unlikely to pass. Murdock said she’s talked to leading legislators about the importance of reducing Black maternal mortality, and wanted to go “big and bold” with the proposal.

She noted that Senate Republicans have filed a bill that would have women who use Medicaid while they are pregnant stay on the government insurance plan for 12 months postpartum rather than getting cut off after 60 days – a bill that supporters of the Black maternal health bill had considered putting in their package.

Rep. Julie von Haefen, an Apex Democrat and a sponsor of the House bill, said the hope is to get some of the provisions included in the state budget the legislature passes.

“We do have some support for some provisions across the aisle,” she said.

North Carolina’s leadership serves as a model other states can emulate, said Breana Lipscomb, senior manager of the U.S. Maternal Health & Rights Initiative at the Center for Reproductive Rights. Few other states are looking at the impact of COVID-19, addressing access for women in the military to pregnancy and postpartum care, and acknowledging the role of community organizations in reducing maternal deaths, she said.

“Research shows that for Black and white women with the same risk factors and the same pregnancy complications, Black women are still more likely to die,” Lipscomb said. “This indicates that there is some factor other than an individual’s health condition that influences mortality risk for Black women.”

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