How Black Mamas aims to help more women survive childbirth

Mama Sana Vibrant Woman_2

Approximately 700 women die every year in the United States from pregnancy-related complications, according to the recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while that makes the United States the leader among developed countries for maternal deaths, what’s more shocking is that the rate of those deaths occurring for Black mothers across the United States is 2.5 times higher than for white mothers.

More data reported by the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force report indicate that death and other negative outcomes after birth could be attributed the lack of access to health insurance. Most of the maternal deaths were to women who were enrolled in Medicaid at the time of delivery, which stops covering new mothers 60 days after delivery.

“You can’t question the data at this point,” said Michele Rountree, associate professor at the UT-Austin school of social work and founder of community health organization Black Mamas Community Collective. Black Mamas has a clear mission statement: To keep Black women from dying from childbirth.  Rountree says the data shows that even when you account for factors like socioeconomic status, education, marital status, and underlying health conditions, Black women still suffer more death and other poor health outcomes than any other ethnic group.

“So instead of continuing to ask the question, ‘What’s wrong with them?’, we need to ask more important questions about the institutional responsiveness to this problem, or the lack thereof,” said Rountree.

“The big insight from the CDC report at the national level is that 60 percent of all maternal deaths are preventable,” said Elizabeth Krause, senior program officer at St. David’s Foundation. Last fall the foundation launched a $2 million program to invest in efforts that address maternal mortality in Central Texas and funds Black Mamas.

Krause says that in addition to the loss of health insurance coverage for childbirth-related conditions, women who have just given birth lose some of their community connections, as well. The state’s Healthy Texas Women program offers some health support, she says, but mothers don’t access it much.  “We need a systems change,” said Krause, “and a cultural change.”

She says she’s been impressed with the Black Mamas efforts. “They’ve literally changed the face of the people who are talking about these issues,” said Krause. Rountree says the Black Mamas’ top priority has been to advocate for the passage of a state bill that would allow low-income mothers to maintain their Medicaid insurance for 12 months after giving birth. That bill passed the Texas House on May 10 and has until May 27 to pass the Senate.

The social support and advocacy work has been a driver of health within the Black Mamas group, said Krause, a surprising theme. “I’m in awe of the relationships between the healthcare workers and the mothers,” she said. Black Mamas home visits and “sister circles” provide the cultural relevance that had been missing from most maternal health programs, said Rountree.  It’s the kind of care you can’t put in a prescription pad, she says. “It’s community driven, and that’s what’s so inspiring.”

Photo: Black women across the United States are 2.5 times more likely to die from childbirth than white women. Photo contributed by St. David’s Foundation. 

NOTE: This article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on May 19, 2019.

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