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HHS addresses U.S. maternal health crisis

HHS has awarded $65 million to health centers to help address the United States's increasingly high maternal mortality rate.
By admin
May 24, 2023, 8:58 AM

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), has awarded more than $65 million to 35 HRSA-funded health centers to fund a variety of maternal health equity initiatives. 

The funding will be used to address the United States’ sky-high maternal mortality rates of 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births.   

Maternal deaths occur at dramatically higher rates in the US compared other industrialized nations, and the risks are not evenly spread across the population. Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native mothers are two to three times more likely to die due to pregnancy-related complications compared to white mothers and are significantly more likely to experience infant mortality compared to other groups. 

“We need bold solutions that recognize and respond to the unacceptable disparities in maternal health outcomes in this country,” said HRSA Administrator Carole Johnson. “Through this new funding, health centers will be able to tailor their response to the needs of their patients and communities and take action to save lives.” 

HRSA-funded community health centers provide prenatal care to more than half a million residents in under-resourced communities, including rural areas and other geographical regions with high scores on socioeconomic vulnerability indices.   

The funding, which is part of a broader White House blueprint for addressing the ongoing maternal health crisis, will allow health centers to invest in new approaches to care, including expanding access to bilingual doula services, deploying technology to reach rural patients, and improving culturally aware mental and behavioral healthcare services for pregnant people and their families. 

The money will augment the work of existing HRSA efforts to improve maternal health, such as the RMOMS program: a four-year innovation bootcamp that encourages rural health centers to build networks of coordinated, technology-driven care while allowing federal agencies to collect better data on designing and deploying interventions in challenging environments. 

HRSA has also been actively involved in developing the maternal health workforce, strengthening access to mental health and behavioral health resources for expectant mothers, and convening local and state stakeholders to discuss the most effective methods for deploying creative interventions to connect with hard-to-reach populations.   

Improved use of data analytics and population health management techniques is crucial to the success of these multifaceted initiatives, the White House said in its maternal health roadmap. However, the nation’s health system does not yet have the infrastructure to appropriately collect, let alone act upon, data-driven insights around maternal mortality and health equity. 

“Data collection on maternal health risks, services, outcomes in the United States continues to be fragmented, unstandardized, nontransparent, and irregular,” the blueprint states. “Incomplete and inconsistent data collection also means maternal morbidity and mortality rates are not effectively quantified, which can slow or halt action to address known disparities in maternal outcomes.”  

“Data often lags, and data systems (e.g., hospital discharges and claims data, birth and death certificates, public programs that offer food and housing assistance) often operate in siloes. In addition, pregnant and lactating women are often excluded from clinical research because of concerns about possible harm to them and their babies, leaving providers with insufficient information to inform clinical decisions.” 

Part of the solution lies in making more data available to Maternal Mortality Review Committees (MMRCs), state or local groups that analyze the circumstances around the death of an expectant or new mother. Useful data will include socioeconomic factors surrounding the person’s access and utilization of perinatal care, including the number of available behavioral health providers, the rates of violent crime in the person’s neighborhood, and the prevalence of food insecurity. 

Working with other agencies, such as the CDC, as well as health plans and health systems, the White House is hoping to test innovative data collection and analytics strategies to generate a more comprehensive portrait of existing health disparities and design interventions to close gaps in experiences and outcomes for populations facing barriers to care. 

“We will work to match housing data with health data to understand how to better assist pregnant women in public housing,” officials said. “We will also leverage anonymized data from sources assessing the impacts of chemical and non-chemical stressors on women’s reproductive health so that we can better educate the public and providers about how pollution, natural disasters, and other stressors can contribute to poor outcomes. We will bolster our research efforts by building the next generation of maternal health researchers, enhancing HHS research on rural maternal health, and identifying remaining research gaps that need to be filled.” 

The $65 million in HRSA funding for health centers will contribute toward creating a safety net health system with the capacity to engage in these activities and participate in more advanced efforts to improve data collection and generate actionable insights around maternal health equity. 

“The Biden-Harris Administration is taking significant steps to address our country’s maternal health crisis,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “This support for HRSA-funded health centers will help ensure healthier pregnancy and postpartum outcomes for all and help address health disparities among women of color and women in rural and medically underserved areas.” 

Jennifer Bresnick is a journalist and freelance content creator with a decade of experience in the health IT industry.  Her work has focused on leveraging innovative technology tools to create value, improve health equity, and achieve the promises of the learning health system.  She can be reached at jennifer@inklesscreative.com.

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