Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, one of the largest hospitals in California, is facing a civil rights investigation from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) due to its treatment of Black mothers, who are three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women in the U.S.
Since 1999, the number of women who have died following childbirth has more than doubled, and Black women make up the majority of deaths, according to a study published in JAMA that uses data from 1999 to 2019. The study found that there were 1,210 maternal deaths in 2019. In 1999, there were 505.
“Maternal health is a priority for the Biden-Harris administration and one in which the HHS Office for Civil Rights is working on around the country to ensure equity and equality in health care,” the DHS said in a statement to Yahoo News, adding that it cannot comment further on the investigation at Cedars-Sinai.
'How did you let this happen?'
The federal probe comes years after the death of Kira Dixon Johnson, a Black mother who died from internal bleeding roughly 12 hours after giving birth to her second child via a cesarean section.
“The doctor rushed [the C-section] and did it in less than two minutes. He lacerated her bladder in the process, and then once all that happened, she was allowed to bleed for 10 hours internally, while myself and my family begged and pleaded for them to do something,” Charles Johnson, Kira's husband and founder of 4Kira4Moms, a nonprofit working to end the maternal mortality crisis, told Yahoo News. Kira Dixon Johnson is survived by the couple’s two sons.
In 2022, Johnson filed a civil rights lawsuit against Cedars-Sinai and said it has paved the way for a federal investigation.
“It's about accountability and transparency,” he said. “How did you let this happen? What are you doing to make sure this doesn't happen to other women?”
Johnson says he has spoken with nearly 100 other families or individuals who claim they have received improper treatment at Cedars-Sinai during childbirth.
“What's happening at Cedars-Sinai is not unique. This is happening in hospitals all over the country,” Johnson said.
In 2021, maternal mortality rates in the U.S rose, and Black women were affected the most. "These aren't socioeconomic issues,” Gregory Johnson, chief executive officer of Sound Physicians, a physician-led medical group, told Yahoo News. “These are simply indications of systemic racism that are manifesting themselves in the health care system.”
The Kira Johnson Act
Experts say the federal probe is unprecedented and long overdue.
“This is a next natural evolution of really trying to get people to understand [that] even if you survive pregnancy and childbirth, even if you go home with your baby, even if you're not one of the shameful maternal morbidity and mortality statistics that we have in the United States, experiencing racism, when you experience health care, in and of itself is an adverse event,” Monica McLemore, professor of nursing and public health at the University of Washington, told Yahoo News.
According to a Cedar-Sinai spokesperson, "Cedars-Sinai clinicians, leaders and researchers have long been concerned with national disparities in Black maternal health, and we are proud of the work we've done (and continue to do) to address these issues in Los Angeles as well as at the state and national levels," the hospital told Yahoo News.
Cedars-Sinai says it is working to prioritize maternal health as the hospital increases its research; working alongside the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative to increase treatment plans; and partnering with Cherished Futures for Black Moms & Babies. Financially, the hospital says it has provided more than $2 million in grants to organizations throughout Los Angeles that are working to improve Black maternal health care.
Johnson says the investigation is monumental. “The reason why this civil rights investigation is so important is [because] the Department of Health and Human Services is the department that provides federal funding for hospitals,” he said, adding that if it establishes a pattern of racism, it could put funding for the hospital in jeopardy.
In the meantime, leaders across the country are seeking federal action to combat the maternal mortality crisis. On July 11, Sen. Reverend Warnock, D-Ga., and Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., reintroduced the Kira Johnson Act, which seeks to help fund organizations working to improve maternal health outcomes for Black women.
“The rate of maternal mortality is an ongoing and worsening crisis. Black women are particularly at risk in the state of Georgia, where they are three to four [times] more likely to die related to childbirth or pregnancy than their white sisters. … We can’t get this done soon enough,” Warnock said in a press release.
McLemore says that while an overwhelming amount of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, there is not just one solution. “The demographics of the people who are dying are going to have to change before I think we actually see any significant change. And that's unfortunate,” she said.