By Perdita Henry
In a 2016 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, researchers found that from 2011 to 2015, 537 Texas women died while pregnant or within 42 days of delivery, compared to 296 from 2007 to 2010. This doubling of maternal deaths made Texas the most dangerous place to give birth in the developed world. Maternal mortality was on the agenda for the 85th Legislature but many of the bills that would help us understand and identify the dangers facing new and expectant mothers were left to languish. Now with the Texas Legislature set to return on July 18 for a 30-day special session, they have a chance to do the right thing for Texas mothers.
The issue of maternal mortality is a concern all over the country but Texas unfortunately has the distinction of being the worst. In fact, Janet Realini, MD, MPH, president of Healthy Futures of Texas and chair of Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition, spoke about her concerns during her Member of the Month interview. “Texas women have the highest maternal mortality rate of any state — higher than many third-world countries,” she said. “Preventive care and contraception are incredibly important in addressing this issue in two ways: preventing unplanned pregnancies that can stress women with health issues and serving as an entry to health care for women with health risks.”
Several representatives arrived at the Capitol with the intention of finding out why Texas women are dying at a higher rate, ensuring they have access to the care needed, and finding out why African-American women — who give birth to 11 percent of babies born but account for almost 29 percent of all maternal deaths — die at higher rates than other women in the state. Two specific bills aimed to do just that were House Bill 2403 by Rep. Shawn Thierry (D-Houston), and Senate Bill 1929 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham). H.B. 2403 would have required the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force to conduct a study of the causes of death in African-American women and S.B. 1929 would have extended the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force thru 2023 and had the task force investigate a number of additional factors. Both bills were killed in what has become known as the Mother’s Day Massacre, when more than 100 bills were allowed to expire due to political push back from the self-labeled House Freedom Caucus.
At the end of the regular legislative session, only two bills addressing maternal mortality passed. H.B. 1158 by Rep. Sarah Davis (R- West University Place) will make postpartum screenings available to women on Medicaid but will not offer treatment to those diagnosed. Senate Bill 1599 by Sen. Borris L. Miles (D- Houston) requires the Department of State Health Services to post protocol for pregnancy-related death investigations and best practices for reporting those deaths to the medical examiner or justice of the peace of each county. Neither of these bills do much to pinpoint the exact reasons why these deaths are occurring or what we need to do to stop them.
With all the challenges faced and so few victories coming out of the regular session, I checked in with Texas Women's Healthcare Coalition’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, Alice Bufkin, to find out how the coalition feels about the special session and the Legislature’s second chance. “There were several positive bills and riders that passed this session that will help improve health care for Texas moms, including Rep. Davis’ H.B. 2466 to improve access to postpartum depression screenings,” she says. “Unfortunately, the Legislature missed many other opportunities to prioritize the health and wellbeing of Texas moms and babies. We’re pleased that the Governor expressed support for extending the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force, and we hope the Legislature will identify additional strategies for improving health outcomes for moms.” And so do the women of Texas.