White House issues nationwide call to action on maternal health crisis

Vice President Harris hosted the White House's Maternal Health Day of Action.

December 22, 2021, 2:02 PM

The Biden administration on Tuesday issued a "nationwide call to action" on the maternal health crisis in the United States, which continues to have the highest rate of maternal mortality among developed nations, according to researchers.

Vice President Kamala Harris said in remarks at the White House's first ever Maternal Health Day of Action that the call to action is being made to both the public and private sectors.

"This challenge is urgent and it is important and it will take all of us," Harris said, kicking off a summit that convened lawmakers, Cabinet secretaries and celebrities, including Olympian Allyson Felix. "To put it simply, in the United States of America, in the 21st century, being pregnant and giving birth should not carry such great risk."

"But the truth is, and this is a hard truth, women in our nation are dying before, during and after childbirth," she said.

Harris announced Tuesday a new initiative in which hospitals across the country will be rated on the quality of their maternal health care and designated as "Birthing-Friendly" hospitals if they meet the criteria.

In addition, Harris said the administration has received pledges from more than 20 companies and nonprofits to invest more than $20 million in maternal health efforts in the U.S. and more than $150 million globally. The organizations supporting the effort range from Uber and Lyft and DoorDash to Pampers, CVS, the March of Dimes, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, according to the White House.

"They have pledged to invest in remote care monitors for rural communities, to invest in innovative care models for the postpartum period, to invest in education programs for maternal health providers and so much more," she said.

The vice president, who introduced several pieces of legislation on maternal health during her time in the U.S. Senate, also touted the $3 billion investment in maternal health in the Build Back Better Act, which passed the House of Representatives in November but remains stalled in the Senate.

In addition to the $3 billion in funding, one maternal health provisions in the legislation includes allowing states to establish "maternal health homes" to coordinate care for people before, during and after birth, according to the White House.

Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, also announced Tuesday that the agency is releasing new guidance to help states implement a new option, available April 1, 2022, that will allow them to extend Medicaid postpartum coverage from the current 60 days after birth to 12 months.

"This postpartum period is a very crucial time, with more than half of pregnancy-related deaths taking place after birth," said Brooks-LaSure. "That makes maintaining continuous Medicaid or CHIP [Children's Health Insurance Program] coverage and ensuring people can access the care they need during the postpartum period a critical issue."

Tuesday's summit marks the administration's latest effort to draw attention to the issue of maternal mortality. In April, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever presidential proclamation for Black Maternal Health Week.

At that time, Harrisals led a roundtable discussion with women of color affected by the maternal mortality crisis.

Black and Native American women in the U.S. are two to three times as likely to die during childbirth or in the months after than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black women are also more likely than white, Asian or Latina women to die from pregnancy-related complications regardless of their education level or their income, data shows.

Pregnancy-related deaths are defined as the death of a woman during pregnancy or within a year of the end of pregnancy from pregnancy complications, a chain of events initiated by pregnancy or the aggravation of an unrelated condition by the physiological effects of pregnancy, according to the CDC.

One reason for the disparity is that more Black women of childbearing age have chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, which increases the risk of pregnancy-related complications like preeclampsia and possibly the need for emergency C-sections, according to the CDC.

But there are socioeconomic circumstances and structural inequities that put Black women at greater risk for those chronic conditions, data shows. And Black women often have inadequate access to care throughout pregnancy which can further complicate their conditions, according to a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

In her remarks, Harris called the "systemic inequities" that affect pregnant people of color a "matter of life and death."

She also drew attention to how the issue of maternal mortality affects people who live in rural areas with limited access to care, saying they are 60% more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications.

"Regardless of income level, regardless of education level, Black women, Native women, women who live in rural areas are more likely to die or be left scared or scarred from an experience that should be safe and should be a joyful one," said Harris. "And we know a primary reason why this is true, systemic inequities, those differences in how people are treated based on who they are and they create significant disparities in our healthcare system."

Last December, in the final weeks of the Trump administration, the Department of Health and Human Services launched an action plan to combat the high rates of pregnancy-related complications and deaths.

The plan set out three key targets aimed at improving maternal health by 2025: reducing maternal mortality rate by 50%, reducing low-risk cesarean deliveries by 25% and controlling blood pressure in 80% of reproductive age women.

Also last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the "Hear Her" campaign with the goal of creating public awareness of the warning signs of pregnancy emergencies.