Tackling an issue that Congress has largely ignored for decades, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to request $50 million in new funding for programs aimed at reducing the comparatively high U.S. rate of women who die in pregnancy or childbirth.
More than three-quarters of the proposed funding — $38 million — would go to the federal Maternal and Child Health Bureau to expand life-saving, evidence-based programs at hospitals and increase access to the Healthy Start program for new mothers and babies. The remaining $12 million would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to enhance data collection and research as well as support state boards that count and review maternal deaths.
“I’m kind of blown away,” said Charles Johnson, a maternal health advocate whose wife Kira died from a hemorrhage after giving birth in 2016. Maternal mortality, he added, has come to be seen as “not a black issue, not a white issue, not a liberal issue, not a conservative issue, not even just a woman’s health issue, but what it truly is, which is a human rights issue — that’s the big shift.”
The funding is included in the appropriation committee’s $179.3 billion budget bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies, which was approved on a 30-1 vote. On Tuesday, a different Senate panel — the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee — unanimously passed the Maternal Health Accountability Act, sponsored by Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state who sits on the Senate health and appropriations committees, was instrumental in pushing the two bills forward. “It is absolutely unacceptable that so many mothers in this country are dying in childbirth, and it’s long past time that we address this issue,” Murray said at the Tuesday hearing.
The Heitkamp-Capito legislation would establish a grant program to help states and tribal authorities identify and investigate maternal deaths and translate those lessons into policies that reduce health disparities and save mothers’ lives. The funding would come from the $12 million proposed for the CDC.
“In the 21st century, no mother should have to worry about dying during childbirth, especially in a country as advanced as the United States,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “Rising maternal mortality rates must be urgently addressed, and we need to better understand this crisis so we can more effectively tackle it.”
The Senate actions are the latest by lawmakers across the country in response to the “Lost Mothers” project that ProPublica and NPR launched last year. In recent months, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon and the District of Columbia have established committees to examine maternal deaths, bringing the total number of these state and local maternal mortality review committees to at least 35.
As ProPublica and NPR have reported, more than 700 women die annually in the U.S. from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth, and the rate has increased even as it has fallen in other affluent countries. The rate of near-fatal complications has also soared since the 1990s, endangering more than 50,000 U.S. women a year.
More than 60 percent of pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths in the U.S. are preventable, a CDC Foundation report indicated this past February. Black and Native American mothers are at the greatest risk of dying and nearly dying.
Spurred by media attention and lobbying by maternal health advocates, a total of 37 senators, including four Republicans, have signed on to the Heitkamp-Capito bill as cosponsors. “Congressional staff are calling us — ‘My boss just read another article about maternal mortality and they want to know what they can do about it,’” said Amy Haddad, director of government and policy affairs for the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs.
Still, the prospects for passage before the end of the Congressional session are uncertain, especially in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although the House version of the bill has 144 cosponsors, including 34 Republicans, Rep. Michael Burgess — a Texas Republican who chairs the Energy and Commerce committee’s subcommittee on health energy and is himself an obstetrician/gynecologist — has not yet scheduled a hearing. The full Senate must also approve the $50 million in new funds, which would then have to be reconciled with the House budget request — likely to be considerably lower.