Vice President Harris Talks Maternal Health, Prioritizing Inequities For Black Mothers

Vice President Kamala Harris has a full portfolio but among the critical issues she’s passionate about is that of maternal health care. On Thursday, VPOTUS invited ESSENCE to participate in an exclusive media call. 

The conversation comes amid the 5th anniversary of Black Maternal Health Week, founded and led by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. Observed annually from April 11-17, the education and advocacy campaign was first officially recognized in 2021 by the White House. President Joe Biden issued a new proclamation this year, and in the next national budget, the Biden-Harris Administration is proposing that approximately a half a billion dollars go towards reducing maternal mortality and morbidity rates. There is also funding in the proposed budget that would go to the implementation of implicit bias training for healthcare providers, and more.

Harris started by addressing how honored she was to convene the Cabinet on the issue of maternal health and maternal healthcare for the first time in White House history. She refered to her work from her time in the Senate, with Congresswoman Alma Adams, Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, and others to create a package of 12 bills to comprehensively address existing gaps in policy solutions to the maternal health crisis that they call “Momnibus.”

Harris said, “It was about recognizing that we have to take advantage of the knowledge that we have about what is going on with women in the healthcare system, that we have to treat women in a way that we understand this is not just about healthcare, it’s about treating the mother as a whole human being”

More American women are facing death because of childbirth than in any other developed nation. Black women are three times more likely to die in connection with childbirth, while Native women are twice as likely to die. Rural women are one and a half times likely to die, Harris noted.

She stated that the White House is pushing for structural change around how the issue is addressed. The Biden administration has been pushing to have states cover Medicaid coverage for postpartum care.  Currently, states cover, through Medicaid, postpartum care up to only two months postpartum. The support a mother needs after childbirth varies and extends far past two months.  The administration is pushing states to extend Medicaid coverage to 12 months.

Harris was happy to report Michigan is extending their coverage for 12 months. “We’re really proud to know that this is actually taking its course and that these states are actually responding to the call to action.”

She noted in the following week she would be visiting a healthcare facility in San Francisco, to speak with women and providers and hear their stories regarding maternal health.

Harris continued discussing issues regarding housing, nutrition, and transportation. She mentioned recruiting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge for assistance. While the connection between maternal health and housing may seem unclear, Harris explained, “Five to twenty percent of young homeless women are pregnant. So, think about what that means in terms of looking at the whole human being when talking about this issue and considering an issue like housing–affordable housing, housing security.”

As announced Friday, legislation that would also expand Medicaid to cover midwife care in an effort to improve the state of maternal health care. As an attempt to combat bias in the system, the administration hopes to better train those who are in the healthcare delivery system and consider who is going to do the training.  Harris believes the answer to highly skilled professionals best fit to do the training is doulas.

“Doulas are, predominantly women, but they are the skilled professionals that many women who need an advocate go to, to help them through the course of their pregnancy, through the course of childbirth and after.”

Harris said she had the head of the National Institutes of Health at the Cabinet meeting to encourage them to do more research on pregnant women.

She even mentioned the need for culturally competence for those conducting the research.

“It is not only who is collecting the data but ensuring that who analyzes the data is also culturally competent.  Because, of course, we can collect data, but if your interpretation of the data does not consider the culture of the community and the particular language of a community, the resulting opinions are probably flawed.”

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