Harris pushes for expansion of maternal healthcare, Medicaid postpartum coverage

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks on maternal health during the White House Maternal Health Day of Action
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Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday urged Congress to allocate an additional $3 billion for maternal healthcare and expand postpartum Medicaid coverage to one year as part of the proposed social safety net and climate package now before the Senate.

Harris' call to action came during the White House's first Maternal Health Day of Action event, held to draw attention to the fact that the U.S. maternal mortality rate is more than double that of most other developed nations.

"In the United States of America, in the 21st century, being pregnant and giving birth should not carry such great risk," Harris said during the gathering.

Black mothers are three to four times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy complications. Native American women are twice as likely to die before, during or after childbirth.

Harris said investing in pregnant women and mothers would stimulate the economy. The direct medical and indirect non-medical costs of poor maternal healthcare costs the U.S. more than $30 billion each year, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

"A healthy economy requires healthy mothers and healthy babies," Harris said.

The maternal health summit is part of the Biden administration's effort to push more states to extend Medicaid coverage for mothers up to a year after they give birth and to call out health inequities and racial health disparities.

Maternal health experts and advocates say extending coverage for parents during the critical one-year postpartum period helps ensure they have continued access to care.

Currently, states are only required to provide 60 days of postpartum coverage under Medicaid.

The $1.7-trillion social safety net and climate package currently being negotiated in the Senate would require states to provide one year of postpartum coverage under Medicaid. The bill passed the House last month.

Harris urged states to extend coverage on their own and not wait for Congress to act.

"This action will save lives and it will change lives," Harris said.

The Democrats' package would also provide $3 billion in maternal healthcare funding to expand the perinatal workforce, improve data collection and address the social factors that contribute to poor maternal health outcomes.

Nationally, nearly 700 women die each year of pregnancy complications, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In recent years, the CDC has found that some of the most common pregnancy-related complications include infections, cardiovascular issues, bleeding out, high blood pressure and pulmonary embolisms.

Black women had the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation, with around 42 deaths per 100,000 live births between 2014 and 2017, according to the CDC. Hispanic or Latina women had the lowest rates, with nearly 12 deaths per 100,000 live births in the same timeframe.

Even Black mothers with health insurance and above-average incomes who receive timely medical care can encounter problems. The issue gained heightened attention in 2018, when both tennis player Serena Williams and singer Beyoncé publicly spoke about nearly dying from childbirth.

Allyson Felix, an Olympic track star who participated in Tuesday's White House event, said in a statement her pregnancy complications risked her and her daughter's life.

"After my traumatic experience, I decided to use my voice to call out racial injustice in our healthcare system," Felix said. "I am proud to fight with her to make sure maternal health equity is a reality for all women and girls."

California has long been seen by public health experts as a national example of how to decrease maternal deaths.

The rate of maternal deaths in California in 2006 was 16.9 per 100,000 live births, according to the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative, which brings state agencies, hospitals and health provider associations together to come up with preventive solutions for pregnancy complications and deaths.

By 2016, California's maternal mortality declined by 65%.

In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom approved a bill that extended Medi-Cal benefits for new parents to 12 months after birth. The bill also added doulas as eligible providers under Medi-Cal, another political win for maternal health advocates who have long touted the benefits of having this extra emotional and physical support for mothers before, during and after giving birth.

The law also updates data collection and protocols for counties participating in the Fetal and Infant Mortality Review Process, and establishes a fund for midwife training programs that prioritize admitting underrepresented groups.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.