Congress OKs Expansive New Maternal Care Program

Jan Dyer

November 30, 2021

It's called the Momnibus — the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021 (HR 959) with 12 bills addressing "every dimension of the maternal health crisis in America." The first bill in the Momnibus to pass Congress is the Protecting Moms Who Served act, which sets up a $15 million maternal care program within the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). "There has never been a comprehensive evaluation of how our nation's growing maternal mortality crisis is impacting our women veterans, even though they may be at higher risk due to their service," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a co-sponsor of the Momnibus. The bill has passed Congress and awaits President Biden's signature.

Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) along with Rep. Alma Adams (D- NC-12), Sen. Cory Booker D-NJ), and members of the Black Maternal Health Caucus reintroduced the bill (first introduced last year). According to Rep. Underwood, the act would codify and strengthen the VA maternity care coordination programs. It also will require the US Government Accountability Office to report the deaths of pregnant and postpartum veterans and to focus on any racial or ethnic disparities. The bill passed overwhelmingly, 414 to 9, and awaits President Biden's signature.

The Momnibus's cute name represents a very serious purpose. "Maternal mortality has historically been used as a key indicator of the health of a population," say researchers from National Vital Statistics Reports. But American mothers are dying at the highest rate in the developed world, and the numbers have been rising dramatically. Between 1987, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched the Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System in 2017, the latest year for available data, the number of reported pregnancy-related deaths in the United States rose steadily from 7.2 deaths per 100,000 live births to 17.3 per 100,000.

The maternal morbidity crisis is particularly stark among certain groups of women. Black women are acutely at risk, dying at 3 to 4 times the rate of White women (41.7 deaths per 100,000 live births), and one-third higher than the next highest risk group, Native American women (28.3 deaths per 100,000 live births).

But just how accurate have the data been? The study published in National Vital Statistics Report found that using a checkbox for "cause of death" specifying maternal death identified more than triple the number of maternal deaths. Without the checkbox item, maternal mortality rates in 2015 and 2016 would have been reported as 8.7 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with 8.9 in 2002. With the checkbox, the rate would be reported as 20.9 per 100,000 live births in 2015 and 21.8/100,000 in 2016.

The CDC states that the reasons for the rising numbers are unclear; advances in identification have improved over time, for one. But by and large, the women are dying of preventable causes, such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and chronic heart disease. Nearly 60% of maternal deaths are deemed preventable.

Black and other minority women, though, may be dying of biases. Researchers from Beth Israel and Harvard cite studies that have found racial and ethnic disparities in obstetric care delivery. Non-Hispanic Blacks women, Hispanic women, and Asian women, for instance, have lower odds of labor induction when compared with that of White women. The odds of receiving an episiotomy are lower in non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic women. The Listening to Mothers survey III found that 24% of participants perceived discrimination during birth hospitalization, predominantly among Black or Hispanic women and uninsured women.

A maternal health equity advocacy group, 4Kira4Moms, was founded by the husband of Kira Johnson who died of hemorrhage following a routine scheduled cesarean section. In the recovery room, her catheter began turning pink with blood. For 10 hours, her husband said, he and her family begged the medical staff for help but were told his wife was not a priority. Thus, the Momnibus also contains the Kira Johnson Act, which will establish funding for community-based groups to provide Black pregnant women with more support.

Among other changes, the Momnibus will:

  • Make critical investments in social determinants of health that influence maternal health outcomes, such as housing, transportation, and nutrition;

  • Provide funding to community-based organizations that are working to improve maternal health outcomes and promote equity;

  • Comprehensively study the unique maternal health risks facing pregnant and postpartum veterans and support VA maternity care coordination programs;

  • Support mothers with mental health conditions and substance use disorders; and

  • Promote innovative payment models to incentivize high-quality maternity care and nonclinical perinatal support

A variety of recent bills in Congress address maternal health. The Mothers and Offspring Mortality and Morbidity Awareness (MOMMA) Act, for instance, also would specifically address maternal health disparities by improving data collection and reporting, improving maternal care, and advancing respectful, equitable care.

It also would extend Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program coverage. Katie Shea Barrett, MPH, executive director of March for Moms, a coalition of families, health care practitioners, policy makers, and partners advocating for mothers' and families' health, notes in an essay for that Medicaid coverage ends about 60 days postpartum, although half of the maternal deaths happen between 42 days and 1 year postpartum.

She writes: "[W]e have to directly address the disproportionate impact of maternal mortality on women of color by training providers in offering care that is culturally competent and free of implicit bias. Health systems must be aware and respectful of cultural norms when providing care and be mindful of buying into stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, and even underlying medical conditions like diabetes, which often lead to perceived discrimination and perpetuate systems of injustice."

In April, Vice President Kamala Harris called for sweeping action to curb racial inequities in pregnancy and childbirth. In an email Q&A with STAT, she said, "With every day that goes by and every woman who dies, the need for action grows more urgent."

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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