Bills designed to improve maternal health await governor’s approval

Maternal mortality rates in New Jersey are way too high. A package of measures aimed at reversing the disturbing trend is awaiting the governor’s signature to become law. It would, among other things, require that a commission be formed to study what’s causing mothers to die in childbirth. Correspondent Briana Vannozzi recently spoke with one of the bill’s sponsors, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumpter.

Vannozzi: So this is clearly a problem. We’ve seen the statistics, New Jersey ranks 47th among states in maternal mortality rates. What are you and your colleagues in the Legislature looking to do to address that disparity?

Sumter: Right, thank you for that question, Briana. We passed a package of bills most recently in the Legislature on March 25 where we had 80-member support for dealing with the reproductive health of African American women. 60% in the state of New Jersey have mortality rates that should not occur in this point in time, where we’re actually losing lives of the mother and the baby in a country where we had advanced medicines. So we’re really working on policies right now that will increase access, a payer source for mothers, a doula service, and, in fact, March 22 to March 28 is Doula Appreciation Week.

Vannozzi: What is a doula, because a lot of people aren’t aware, and how does a doula help with these health outcomes?

Sumter: So a doula is a birthing coach, is the best way to explain that. And the Department of Health, in partnership with the legislative black caucus and the women of the Legislature, has deployed 40 doulas throughout the state to work with mothers to access health care. So they can ask the tough questions that a mom may not know how to ask or that a health care provider may not be listening to.

Vannozzi: So it’s a medical and some emotional support, really like a full support system there.

Sumter: Full support system for mom and the family. The other piece that’s key for us is for the first time, even with these historic numbers, our Department of Health has called out the racism in the health care system. And with that being stated, now we’re able to address it without any inhibitions about the need to be very focused and dogmatic on making sure we eradicate this issue.

Vannozzi: Part of this is about these disparities within racial groups. I mean, why is it that we see these numbers, with African American women in particular? We’ve been covering this for years, and we’re not seeing these rates decrease. So how is having, one of those bills that you have creates a committee, sort of, to oversee this, how is that committee going to bring some standards, and how will those standards address this?

Sumter: So we’ve done a couple of things. One of our bills, which is my bill, we actually focus on the health care delivery system — standardizing the practice of delivery for the reproductive health of a mom.

Vannozzi: Do we not have standards right now?

Sumter: We do not. There was something in a time where doctors would offer a C-section, schedule birthing date for moms. That’s a very dangerous practice that has fatality outcomes, so we’re moving away from that and we’re incentivizing, or penalizing, doctors who schedule the birthing date for C-sections because we found that it’s more dangerous — that’s known through the Department of Health, Human Services, as well as Child and Family Services, so we’re pulling them all together. And Gov. Murphy, first lady Tammy Murphy has been very focused on making sure we’re all talking, versus us on the policy end saying, “This is what needs to be done for reproductive health” and to make sure a mom survives and a baby survives to their first year of life — to breaking down those walls and making sure that there are providers, they are reimbursed, and that prenatal care is also offered to these women, and not as a single person, but as a group. Imagine bonding with women who are also going through similar instances where you may not know the question to ask, that will support you through this birthing process.

Vannozzi: I’ve covered this topic, you know, throughout the years and that’s one of the issues that a lot of the health care providers have said, it’s just getting into the communities to make them aware. Is that addressed in this bill package?

Sumter: That is definitely addressed in the bill package. Instead of going into a center, or into a hospital, we’re making sure that we outreach; that we’re deploying health care professionals to the homes. There’s follow-up visits, there’s nutrition planning, there’s actually an assessment of the social determinants that may impact a mom getting or having a healthy delivery and a healthy lifestyle leading up to delivery. So we’re really doing the full comprehensive package to wrap around these moms so that we can reduce that 60% rate of mortality.

Vannozzi: And are there actual dollars tied to this? Clearly the governor supports us this, this is an initiative of the first lady, but are there dollars tied to this to help sort of see this through?

Sumter: Believe it or not, and that’s the most remarkable piece of it today, we’ve actually put money into the pot for this. We’ve actually put a funding source — a payer, which is Medicaid — to make sure that those moms — Medicaid, there’s a large population of the birthing mothers that as a resource and an insurance benefit. So we’re actually making sure that providers can be paid to take care of these women and children, and also that these women and children have professionals who can go into the community.

Vannozzi: Very quickly, is there a bench mark that you all are looking to meet? Because these numbers are really startling. We’re not just talking about the mothers, but we’re also talking about the rate of births for these babies. Is there a bench mark that you’re looking to get to?

Sumter: Our bench mark is to eliminate it, to get to zero, to have zero moms die, to have a baby live past their first year, to have a healthy delivery so that we can continue to grow as a population and have African American women excited and enjoy the birthing process.