Marking Black Maternal Health Week, the Biden administration is moving to put more federal resources behind improving Black maternal health care.
“Make no mistake. Black women in our country are facing a maternal health crisis,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at a virtual roundtable she hosted in Washington Tuesday. “Black women are two to three times more likely to die in connection with childbirth than other women.” And Black women are also more likely to lose healthcare coverage during their pregnancy, she said.
The United States currently has the highest maternal mortality rates among developed countries – 17.2 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the American Journal of Managed Care.
These rates are even higher among Black women in the United States, regardless of their income and education levels: 37.1 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the Commonwealth Fund.
“We know the primary reasons why: systemic racial inequities and implicit bias,” Harris said. “And the consequences of both are very real.”
Inequities in housing, transportation and nutrition all work together to negatively affect Black maternal health, the vice president said.
The Biden administration is asking Congress to approve spending $200 million to implement implicit bias training for healthcare providers and strengthen current programs focused on maternal care, including Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
The administration also is requesting a 24 percent hike for the United States Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights and a 19 percent increase for the federal family planning program to advance health equity and access to health services.
The administration also is proposing to spend $6 billion to support low-income women and children under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
In addition, the Health Resources and Services Administration is going to make available $12 million for maternal health care in rural communities.
Lastly, the Department of Health and Human Services approved a waiver for Illinois to allow the state to extend postpartum coverage to all pregnant women under Medicaid beyond 60 days and up to 12 months. It is the first of what are expected to be many such waivers.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said in a statement that systemic health inequities have been made even worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
A founding member of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, Hoyer praised the White House’s efforts to address the issue.
“We must build on these efforts to root out bias in medical services, improve access to key reproductive and preventative health services for all women, and expand access to quality health care in hard-to-reach communities,” the Maryland lawmaker said.
Black mothers at the roundtable shared personal experiences with life-threatening pregnancies, bereavement and apathetic care from physicians. A common sentiment that the mothers shared throughout their pregnancies were feelings of being dismissed and not being listened to or heard by their health care providers.
Heather Wilson was diagnosed with preeclampsia during her pregnancy, a condition that worsened towards the end of her term. She lost her first child, Kennedy.
“In the aftermath, we struggled to pick up the pieces without direction, support and resources,” Wilson said. “I felt so alone.”
Wilson is the executive director and founder of Kennedy’s Angel Gowns, a non-profit based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, created in memory of her lost baby. The organization provides families with handcrafted burial gowns for their babies, “angel gowns,” which are sewn from pieces of donated wedding gowns.
Wilson said that each week, her organization helps up to 10 families bury their babies, a striking number that she called “unreal.”
Through her work at the organization and as a bereavement doula, Wilson helps raise awareness about pregnancy loss and provides families with the support and resources to assist them through the grieving process.
Erica McAfee suffered two pregnancy losses. She was diagnosed with preeclampsia during her first pregnancy and experienced cervical insufficiency during her second pregnancy. Her third pregnancy was successful, despite having to undergo eight blood transfusions and a partial hysterectomy at the age of 28.
“I knew that there were other Black women who experienced the traumatic birth or pregnancy complications like me and I wanted to hear their stories – I wanted to amplify their voices through podcasts,” McAfee said.
McAfee is the founder and CEO of Sisters in Loss, a digital media platform providing comfort to grieving Black mothers by replacing their “silence with storytelling.”
“For every maternal death, over 100 women experience a severe complication related to pregnancy and childbirth – something we call severe maternal morbidity,” said Dr. Elizabeth A. Howell, head of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the Perelman School of Medicine.
Severe maternal morbidity affects 50,000 women in the United States, according to Howell. And 60% of maternal deaths are preventable, she added.
Harris said she had heard many stories over the years of poor treatment of Black women by the health care system.
“Black women deserve to be heard,” the vice president said. “Their voices deserve to be respected. And like all people, they must be treated with dignity.”