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Health care for U.S. mothers shows little improvement, new report says

The racial gaps in maternal health outcomes have grown over the past few decades and Black women face higher likelihood of mortality compared to other groups.
Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women, data shows.
Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women, data shows. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published Sep. 15
Updated Sep. 15

Maternal mortality rates have fallen across the globe over the past two decades, but not in the U.S. Those rates have shown little improvement, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Today, an American woman is 50 percent more likely to die during childbirth than her mother, the report says. And the racial gaps in maternal health outcomes have grown over the past 30 years in the U.S. Since the 1990s, rates of maternal mortality for Black moms have increased.

“In our nation, access to health care, quality of care and the experience of pregnant individuals is not equal,” said commissioner Debo Adegbile during a Wednesday conference call to discuss the report.

Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women, the report says, making the risk for Black moms so high it’s comparable to developing countries.

Native American women are more than twice as likely than white moms to experience pregnancy-related death.

Related: Florida mothers of color, seeking better care, turn to midwives and doulas

The report, which looks at the federal government’s role in addressing these disparities, used Georgia, North Carolina and New Jersey as case studies.

In 2018, more than 650 women died of maternal causes across the country. One year later, that increased to more than 750, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

In Florida, the number of deaths followed a similarly stark trend, increasing from 40 in 2018 to more than 60 fatalities the following year, state Department of Health data shows. A disproportionate number of the women who died in 2018 were Black.

Studies show wealth and education levels don’t reduce the risk for Black mothers. Differences in the quality of care women receive explain part of disparity, the report says. Other factors including social determinants of health — such as access to healthy foods, employment opportunities and mental health services — and structural racism and bias within the health care system have a profound impact on the health of moms and babies.

The majority of maternal deaths are preventable, the report says, and the consequences can ripple across families for generations.

“The racial disparities in maternal health care and maternal morbidity in the United States are severe, urgent and addressable,” Adegbile said.

Florida’s move to extend Medicaid from 60 days postpartum to 12 months in June marked a significant step forward in addressing the disparities, experts say. The new law is a $240 million endeavor that garnered bipartisan support in the Legislature. The state will fund $92 million of that.

Related: Medicaid boost would give a year of postpartum care to Florida moms

Some of the report’s recommendations align with the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, a series of 12 bills aimed at saving mothers’ lives and reducing the racial gaps in maternal health outcomes. U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist and Val Demings of Florida have urged Congress to pass the legislation.

On the federal level, efforts should be made to ensure hospital quality, commission chairwoman Norma Cantú wrote in the report.

“One recommendation for improving safety in maternal healthcare is to implement standardized care practices across hospitals and health systems and to standardize data collection systems.”

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.