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House Committee Questions Rise in Pregnancy-Related Deaths

North Carolina's model for saving the lives of pregnant mothers includes giving them more options for prenatal and postpartum care. (Twenty20)
North Carolina's model for saving the lives of pregnant mothers includes giving them more options for prenatal and postpartum care. (Twenty20)
October 30, 2018

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Congress is asking U.S. healthcare systems why more women are dying from pregnancy-related complications, and North Carolina could have some solutions.

Instances of pregnancy-related deaths in North Carolina have declined steadily since 2012, but overall, the U.S. is one of the few countries where the number is on the rise. The House Ways and Means Committee wants answers from the country's largest hospital systems, and have given a November 15 deadline.

Advocates for maternal care welcome the query but question its depth, since it doesn't address disparities between white women and women of color. Monica Simpson, executive director at the reproductive rights group SisterSong, explained North Carolina's approach to closing the racial-equity gap for new mothers.

"It was really about how people are treated, what access they have and how we need to address racism in all facets of our lives,” Simpson said; “including our healthcare system."

In 2004, pregnancy-related deaths for black women in North Carolina were five-times higher than those of white women. But since then, the state has managed to reduce that mortality rate by 40 percent. More than 400 pregnancy care managers are stationed at hospitals and county health departments across the state to help with postpartum care, offer in-home aid after delivery, and steer women to substance-abuse programs when necessary.

No North Carolina hospitals are included in the congressional survey, but state health care providers are hoping the evaluation leads to better practices for maternal care. Sarah Verbiest, executive director of the Center for Maternal and Infant Health at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, serves as an advisor for maternal-health initiatives. She said finding solutions requires more than a single survey.

"It's a multi-level problem at an internalized, interpersonal and institutional level,” Verbiest said. “And we really need to focus on all of those different opportunities for change if we're going to really close the gap."

U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., have praised North Carolina healthcare providers. Both have proposed bills to improve health and pregnancy outcomes by giving federal dollars to states that adopt similar maternal-care models.

Reporting by North Carolina News Connection in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the Park Foundation.

Antionette Kerr, Public News Service - NC