Black Maternal Health: Lawmakers Introduce New Bill to Combat Disparities

Being black and pregnant in the U.S. isn’t always easy. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women.

There are many different reasons for this, including systemic barriers that often limit black women’s access to maternal healthcare, implicit bias among providers, and lifestyle factors that can determine health outcomes, including inadequate access to healthy food, stable housing, and education.

Black women are paid, on average, just 63 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. This makes it even more difficult to secure a safe and healthy pregnancy. Black women are more likely to be uninsured, face greater financial barriers to care when they need it, and are less likely to access prenatal care compared to white women. They also face a higher risk of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, which lead to pregnancy complications.

Just in time for Black History Month, three lawmakers have just introduced a black maternal health omnibus bill that’s designed to reduce these inequalities, so every woman can have a healthy pregnancy, regardless of the color of her skin.

The Black Maternal Health “Momnibus” Act of 2021

The new bill is a near replica of a bill that was introduced in Congress last March, but the coronavirus pandemic made it nearly impossible for lawmakers to focus on the issue. As Congress moves closer to passing another coronavirus relief package, there’s hope they might be able to turn this package into law.

The bill is sponsored by Representatives Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and Alma Adams (D-N.C.), who co-chair the Black Maternal Health Caucus in the House, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

If passed, the bill would send money to community health organizations and state and local governments working to address these health disparities among pregnant black women. The money would be used to set up anti-bias training programs in maternity wards and other clinical settings, while working to grow the overall prenatal workforce to increase access to care.

The bill would also help address certain social issues that often contribute to poor health outcomes, including education, nutrition, housing, and transportation.

The lawmakers know their bill still has a long way to go before it becomes law, but Sen. Booker says Vice President Kamala Harris supported this legislation when she was a senator from California. “I know of the White House’s commitment to issues of racial equity and to address the severe gaps we have in health care provision and outcomes in this country,” Booker said.

Rep. Underwood, who’s also a nurse, is hoping to get senior leadership onboard with the idea.

“It is my goal to have at least some provisions signed into law this year and so we are working with that sense of purpose and urgency and laying the groundwork to make sure that leadership is well aware that these bills are coming their way,” Underwood said.

Maternal Health in the Face of COVID-19

The lawmakers argue this bill is needed now more than ever as the pandemic continues to disproportionately affect brown and black women of color.

“During COVID-19, we’ve seen black, Hispanic, Indigenous and Asian Americans face higher rates of exposure to the virus and suffer more severe health consequences upon infection. These disparities are unacceptable,” Underwood said. “The hour for bold action has arrived and bold action is what the momnibus represents.”

The money would also be used to fund vaccination programs for pregnant women who may be hesitant to take the vaccine.

A Personal Fight

Rep. Underwood drew on her experience as a nurse when drafting the legislation.

She added, “During our clinical training, we were taught that there’s ‘something about black women,’ where we’re more likely to die as a result of pregnancy or labor or related complications. That is, that is the wrong message to be sending as part of clinical training for our health care providers.”

Rep. Adams says she knows the consequences of these disparities first-hand. She recently talked to reporters about how her daughter almost died from complications during childbirth when her maternity doctor ignored her complaints about abdominal pain – a common issue for black patients.

If passed, the bill would change our country’s approach to maternity care to make sure every woman has access to quality care. 

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