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A number of factors cause moms to die in labor. Ohio reps hope a wide-reaching bill can help

A person holds a baby's hand.
Ohio representatives are backing the so-called "Momnibus Bill" that aims to improve maternal health equity.

Ohio’s rate of 23.8 maternal deaths per 100,000 births is slightly higher than the national average, according to KFF. And it’s an issue disproportionately impacting Black women across the state. Black women in Ohio are more than twice as likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women, according to a 2020 report from the Ohio Department of Health.

Five Ohio representatives and one senator have signed onto a federal package of legislation that hopes to curb these pregnancy-related deaths, called the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act. It’s a package of 13 bills that invests in everything from nutrition programs to maternal vaccination promotion to maternal mental health initiatives.

U.S. Rep. Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, co-introduced the bill last year. Speaking on the House floor last month, Sykes lamented Ohio’s high maternal mortality rates.

“Motherhood should be one of the greatest, most joyful times of their lives,” Sykes said. “But for far too many Black women in Ohio’s 13th Congressional district and across the country, this experience is often overshadowed by trauma, heartache and loss.”

Social determinants of health

Much of this legislation within the package aims to tackle social determinants of health, or the external factors that contribute to maternal mortality.

The Social Determinants for Moms Act would create a fund to address housing, transportation and nutrition needs. Another measure would expand the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) eligibility for new moms. Yet another would expand data collection and research around the causes of maternal mortality.

We still see maternal mortality at such a high rate, many of them due to ineffective levels of care, toxic stress caused by racism,” Jazmin Long, president and CEO of Birthing Beautiful Communities, said. “There are so many factors that really lead into these poor birth outcomes and poor maternal fatalities that we see.”

Long’s nonprofit advocates for positive birth outcomes in northeast Ohio. She said many maternal deaths are avoidable . Among the pregnancy-related deaths occurring from 2012 to 2016 in Ohio, more than half were thought to be preventable, according to a report from the Ohio Department of Health.

Maternal care workforce in Ohio

Another part of the legislation will address the perinatal workforce, or maternal health care providers across the country. Across Ohio, Long said there’s a shortage of Black maternal health providers who can provide culturally congruent care.

“COVID really has decimated a lot of the workforce. And so some of the doctors and nurses who had consistently been in our hospitals retired or found other places to work because they got so burned out,” Long said.

In addition to OB-GYN doctors and nurses, Long said there needs to be an effort to train more Black midwives, doulas, lactation specialists.

Thirteen of Ohio’s 88 counties are considered maternity care deserts, according to the latest March of Dimes report and many of the state’s rural maternity wards have shuttered in the last decade.

A long road to passage

The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act has been reintroduced for years, and has not garnered bipartisan support in the legislature. Although federal progress has been slow-moving, Long said there’s still work to be done on the state level to improve maternal mortality rates.

Ohio has recently invested in maternal and infant health. In March, Gov. Mike Dewine announced $5 million in funding for community organizations that support pregnant women. And the state recently approved Medicaid coverage for doulas.

But, Long said policies need to extend beyond health and address economic status in order to move the needle.

“We can look at things like universal basic income. We can look at things such as guaranteed income they're working on here in Cleveland, policies that would really … help to lift folks out of poverty,” Long said.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.