WINCHESTER — African American mothers and infants are more than twice as likely to die during or shortly after pregnancy than their white counterparts, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he’s determined to reduce those inequities.
Kaine met with several stakeholders in Winchester on Friday to discuss racial and geographic disparities in maternal health. The discussion, which took place in the Our Health Building at 329 N. Cameron Street, dove into the challenges African American women, infants and families face during pregnancy and into the first year after birth.
LaTasha Do’zia, a member of the local NAACP, said that as far as the Winchester community is concerned “there is a lack of OB-GYN of color” and that there isn’t a huge selection of choices for maternal healthcare. Do’zia said that nationwide there is often a lack of trust between the Black community and healthcare providers.
“As a Black woman, in this area in particular, when it comes to healthcare, you are not particularly heard,” Do’zia said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the maternal mortality rate for Black women in 2018 was more than 2.5 times higher than the maternal mortality rate of white women, and the infant mortality rate of babies born to Black women is more than 2.3 times higher than the infant mortality rate of babies born to white women. Native American women are more than twice as likely as white women to die as a result of pregnancy or its complications. Kaine said there are “a lot of hypotheses” about the disparities, including a lack of health insurance and the societal stress of racism, but added “there’s more research that needs to be done.”
Gloria Arroyo-Sugg, a Perinatal Behavioral Health liaison who works with women during pregnancy and postpartum, said that mothers who are also minorities understand that racial disparities exist, and that there often is a lack of diversity within maternal healthcare systems. The entire panel, which included Valley Health Vice President of Population Health Jeff Feit and NAACP member Gwen Borders-Walker, generally agreed that there needs to be more diversity and representation within medical facilities to ensure that women of all races are treated equally when receiving healthcare. There was also an agreement that there needs to be more diversity within higher education, including medical schools, as well as implicit bias and sensitivity training for healthcare workers.
Lord Fairfax Health District Director Dr. Colin Greene said he wants data that reveals why Black infants are more than twice as likely to die as white infants, but acknowledged the challenges of doing so.
“You can say ... there’s racism,” Greene said. “Nobody denies it exists. But try to get two people to define it the same way and then try to manage it. It’s pretty hard.”
Greene said there needs to be a central site where data is tracked and posted and easily accessible. Kaine agreed, and said the data could possibly be organized by regions so there can be targeted interventions. Kaine also said that there needs to be outreach and education efforts to let mothers, particularly within the Black community, know what resources are available.
Sara Schoonover-Martin, executive director of Healthy Families of the Northern Shenandoah Valley, said financial burdens are a likely factor as to why some Black mothers aren’t getting the prenatal care they need. She recalled meeting with one African American mother who, seven months into her pregnancy, hadn’t received any prenatal care because she owed a bill for a previous prenatal services and didn’t qualify for Medicaid.
In July, Kaine introduced Mothers and Newborns Success Act, legislation designed to reduce racial inequity in maternal health by strengthening support for women during and after their pregnancies. The legislation would support innovation in maternal health care delivery, improve research and data collection on maternal health and ensure women are better matched with birthing facilities that meet their specific needs. The legislation would also establish a public and provider awareness campaign through the CDC to promote awareness of maternal health warning signs and the importance of vaccinations for pregnant women and children.
In June, the CDC changed the list of at-risk populations of COVID to include pregnant women. Because of this, Kaine hopes to get the legislation included in the next stimulus package dealing with COVID relief.
Kaine said he believes his legislation, designed to reduce maternal and infant mortality, should have bipartisan support. It is unclear, however, whether it will be passed in the next COVID-19 relief package or if it will have better chances of success as a separate bill. The House and Senate have yet to agree on how expansive the next COVID-19 relief package should be.
“Right now the challenge is the scale of it,” Kaine said. “The Democrats have a price tag, where we think we need to do something pretty massive. And the Republicans, and in particular the White House, want to do something much smaller.”
Kaine has also supported a proposal to change Medicaid so it covers mothers not just for 60 days but for a year after they give birth.
Kaine said there was much as stake in the upcoming presidential election in regards to healthcare. The election could determine if the Affordable Care Act gets improved and built upon (as is the hope of Democrats) or eliminated entirely. Kaine said that while polling is strong for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominees for president and vice president, Democrats can’t be complacent.