State policy leaders discuss improving Black maternal health outcomes

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Daily file photo by Katie Pach

The Feinberg School of Medicine. Panelists discussed systemic barriers in maternal health care and actionable steps to improve Black maternal health outcomes in a Wednesday discussion.

Jacquelyne Germain, Assistant Campus Editor

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Black women that causes their maternal health to fare worse than other racial groups — the problem is systemic racism within the healthcare system, U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) said in a Wednesday discussion.

The panel, which was focused on Black maternal health disparities, was hosted by the Center for Health Equity Transformation and the DuSable Museum of African American History. The event, in collaboration with the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, was the second part of CHET’s Black Maternal Health Crisis Series.

Candace Moore, chief equity officer for the City of Chicago, moderated the discussion, and Cassandra Osei, CHET’s clinical research project manager, led the question and answer session.

Underwood, a registered nurse, said she uses her clinical background to approach racial disparities in connection to reproductive health.

“(Black women) are not heard, and we’re not listened to,” Underwood said. “There are some systemic things happening that as a result have caused (Black women) to die for decades at disproportionate rates.”

The panel began with a discussion about Illinois’s expansion of Medicaid coverage for mothers from 60 days to one year after birth. Illinois is the first state to institute such an extension.

The policy change has the potential to save lives, panelist and U.S. Rep. Robin L. Kelly (D-Ill.) said.

“What happens to moms doesn’t just happen in the first 60 days, it can happen the whole entire postpartum period which is a year,” Kelly said. “And 70 percent of moms have one complication during that year.”

A few weeks after the expansion, on April 29, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law proposed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. The provision requires Medicaid to cover doula services for pregnant people, allows workers to use sick days for caregiving responsibilities and requires implicit bias training for healthcare workers.

Panelist Ann Borders, executive director of the Illinois Perinatal Quality Collaborative, said these policies are important steps in improving postpartum safety and addressing racial disparities in maternal health outcomes.

“Legislation is the first piece of the puzzle,” Borders said. “And then we have to figure out how to implement strategies that are going to really make this legislation work for patients.”

Panelist Shaquan Dupart, founder of the Chicago Black Doula Alliance then discussed how COVID-19 has worsened the already-strained relationship between Black people and the healthcare system, including for Black pregnant individuals.

Underwood said the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, a set of 12 bills dedicated to ending the country’s maternal mortality crisis, seeks to mend this relationship. Underwood said the Act entails diversifying the healthcare system, expanding mental healthcare, supporting incarcerated mothers and more.

The discussion concluded with Moore asking the panelists to share actionable steps to support Black maternal health and reduce these disparities. Kelly said it’s important to listen to people’s lived experiences when it comes to maternal mortality.

“We need to hear what’s happening with people on the ground,” Kelly said. “We need the stories of people who had a difficult time with their pregnancy … We are truly in this together so share your stories, share your ideas.”

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Twitter: @jacquygermain

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