Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee announced last week they were launching an investigation into the causes of the rising maternal mortality rate in the United States, surprising committee Democrats as well as experts on the issue.
“With this investigation, we are committed to finding out why these deaths are happening and where Congress can take action to not only prevent these deaths, but also reverse this trend,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairperson Kevin Brady (R-TX), Oversight Subcommittee Chairperson Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), and Health Subcommittee Chairperson Peter Roskam (R-IL) in a statement.
Committee Democrats were not consulted in the decision to launch the maternal mortality investigation, according to a spokesperson for the committee’s Democrats, and the announcement took advocacy groups focused on the issue by surprise as well. “We were totally surprised actually, we didn’t see this coming and neither did any of our partners,” said Monifa Bandele, vice president of maternal justice programs at MomsRising, in an interview with Rewire.News. “For MomsRising, we’ve been beating on pots and pans for two years about this issue and so to see the committee say that they’re going to launch an investigation was a good surprise.”
Bandele is skeptical of GOP efforts to reduce maternal deaths given that the party has repeatedly attempted to make cuts to key government health programs that help address the issue. “We do know that one of the [causes of maternal deaths] is access to health care and that 60 percent of all births are covered by Medicaid, so if you’re working to cut Medicaid, you’re actually working against this issue.”
Some Democrats believe it is out of character for the House GOP to prioritize combating the rising maternal mortality rate when they have largely ignored the issue in the past and manipulated for their own benefit Democratic bills meant to address the issue. “I’ve got a bill that I’ve [co-sponsored] with [Rep.] Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) on maternal mortality,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), in an interview with Rewire.News. “It’s a very good bill about doing better identification and treatment for maternal mortality. It’s a bipartisan, bicameral bill and it was held up for one week because the Susan B. Anthony [List] wanted to put anti-choice language into it.”
A hearing on the issue related to DeGette’s bill, the “Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2017,” was held by the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on September 27, though it has not been considered by the full committee yet.
Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee, however, feel that the one hearing or bill is not enough to fully explore the issue. “That hearing, which highlighted Republican legislation filed by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, shows that Republicans and Democrats in Congress recognize the severity of the problems here; however, it is larger than one hearing or one piece of legislation,” said a committee spokesperson. “We are taking a comprehensive look at many facets of the problem to better understand the root of the problems and what potential solutions may exist. While some very important issues were raised in the hearing that will help to inform our work, this investigation will have the ability to more closely examine key aspects of this problem.”
Advocates who work on issues related to maternal deaths would like to see Black mothers specifically be heard by those running the investigation. “There’s things that medical records can’t tell you, there’s things that medical personnel cannot tell you about what happens when a woman faces maternal morbidity,” said Bandele. “I hope that the investigation launched actually talks to real people, actual moms who’ve interfaced with the system.”
According to a 2016 report from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the overall rate of maternal death in the United States in 2014 was about 24 deaths per 100,000 live births. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that across the country from 2011 to 2014, Black women died from pregnancy-related causes at a rate of 40 deaths per 100,000 live births versus 12 deaths per 100,000 live births among white women and nearly 18 deaths per 100,000 live births for women of other races.
While the GOP committee spokesperson acknowledged that addressing the racial disparities in the maternal mortality rate will be key to addressing the issue, key Democratic legislation already designed to address those disparities, such as Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) bill introduced in August, continue to be ignored by Republican leadership. Her bill, among other things, seeks to address implicit bias—which has a deleterious effect on health outcomes, especially for Black mothers—among health-care providers by introducing training in medical and nursing schools to combat it.
Despite extensive research into the racial disparities in maternal deaths and morbidity, as well as numerous Democratic bills to address the issue, Republicans on the committee feel that more information needs to be gathered to fix the issue. “The outcomes of women giving birth in this country point to the need for more to be done on this,” a spokesperson for committee Republicans told Rewire.News in an email. “Despite previous work, the issue still persists, the outcomes are still unacceptable, and all of this is trending in the wrong direction. Congressional investigations also have a unique ability to bring forth additional information that might otherwise not be considered or made known by reporters or researchers.”