— -- Texas officials are working to understand why more women across the state have been dying either during pregnancy or shortly after. A study published this month has found that maternal mortality rates doubled in Texas between 2011 and 2012 compared to the years before and a new state task force is attempting to understand why the increase occurred.
Dr. Daniel Grossman, Professor at Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at University of California San Francisco and Investigator at the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, said the findings gave him pause.
"Some of the increase in recent years may be related to better reporting...[and] changes in the way they catch this on death certificates," he explained. But "it does seem like this is a real increase -- and it's really very concerning."
Researchers at the Population research Center in Maryland uncovered the significant finding about Texas while they were analyzing maternal deaths in the U.S. between 2000 and 2014, according to the study published in the September issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
In Texas, the rate of maternal mortality doubled to 18.6 deaths per 100,000 live births, between 2009 and 2010, to approximately 36 deaths per 100,000 births between 2011 and 2012, according to the study.
The researchers did not find a specific cause for the sudden uptick in deaths, but called for more study to be done both in Texas and nationwide, so that researchers can better understand maternal health.
A state sponsored task force, the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force (MMMTF), reported in July 2016 that cardiac events and elevated blood pressure complications were first and third causes of death. Death related to drug overdose emerged as the second leading cause of maternal death between 2011 and 2012.
Black women have had the largest risk for maternal death, according to the study – accounting for nearly 30 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in that year.
Based on these findings, and the known problem of collecting proper data nationally, the MMMTF recommended programs for awareness of health disparities and improving health access.
They also note that "mental and behavioral health issues, lack of continuity in access to services, and geographic, racial and ethnic health disparities" likely affected these maternal death rates.
The state senate created the multidisciplinary task force in 2013 to address the problem. State-appointed physicians, nurses, researchers, and community advocates studied and reviewed cases, trends and provided recommendations.
They found that 189 women in Texas died from pregnancy related complications between 2011 and 2012.
Grossman said it’s vital that more study is done in Texas to look at both pregnant women’s access to health care during pregnancy and if the nationwide opioid crisis could have affected the increase in mortality rates.
"Whether part of the spike might be related to epidemic of opiate use that might be somehow concentrated, that merits further examination," he told ABC News today. "The other aspect of this that is concerning is the increase started around the same time that women's health services were really being systematically dismantled."
Grossman pointed out that, starting in about 2011, funding for family planning services as well as for Planned Parenthood was diminished in Texas.
"It's definitely something that needs to be explored in more depth," Grossman said of the increasing maternal mortality rate.
In the study published in the Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers said the research and reporting on maternal mortality needs to be improved. Researchers said it is an "international embarrassment" that the United States has been unable to provide national maternal mortality data since 2007.