Harrisburg – August 12, 2020 – At the request of state Senator Judy Schwank (D- Berks) and state Representatives Morgan Cephas (D- Philadelphia) and Mary Jo Daley (D- Montgomery), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee today held a joint virtual public hearing with the House Democratic Policy Committee on maternal mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers and experts in the field discussed the innovative responses to maternal mortality before and during the coronavirus pandemic, which put a unique strain on the overall healthcare system and traditional services.

“The increasing rates of maternal mortality in the United States were extremely concerning before the coronavirus pandemic hit, but as we continue to fight the spread of COVID-19, we need to make sure that we are continuing to work for policies that give new moms and babies the healthiest outcomes possible,” Schwank said. “Not only must our healthcare system continue bracing for the effects of COVID-19, it must also continue to be vigilant in making sure that pregnant and new mothers are receiving the best treatment and care possible.”

Senator Lisa Boscola (D- Lehigh/Northampton), chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, continued, “We have spent a lot of time during this pandemic discussing the best ways to protect so many different segments of society. Maternal mortality is not just a women’s issue, it affects the family unit as a whole. Today we had the opportunity to discuss the best ways to protect mothers and their babies in their most vulnerable moments. This overdue conversation, and practical solutions that came from it, will save lives.”

According to the Harvard Business Review, women in the United States have the greatest risk of dying from pregnancy complications among 11 high-income countries. From 1991 to 2014, maternal mortality in the U.S. increased from 10.3 per 100,000 live births to 23.8 per 100,000 live births.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has swept our communities by surprise both in health and the economic aftermath. As we continue to take a look at the issue of maternal mortality, we must come together to examine ways that we can secure more funding and develop policies that result in better health outcomes for all mothers so they can thrive and take care of their families,” Cephas said. “As this virus rages on, I look forward to hearing from the experts so that we can better inform leaders across all sectors and ensure that our future looks brighter than our past.”

Daley continued, “Pennsylvania has an alarming maternal morbidity rate, and the pandemic is highlighting the barriers and inequity in care. I am grateful for the experts who have joined us today to discuss best practices to protect our mothers and newborns, and I am hopeful these will transition to statewide policies.”

Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine, said in 2019 that nearly 700 women die from pregnancy-related complications each year in the United States, and more than half of those deaths are preventable. She added that Black women face almost double the rates of maternal mortality when compared to the general population.

“A nation’s rate of maternal mortality is often used to measure overall effectiveness of the health care delivery system through assessment of general medical care.  It is necessary to keep this in mind when crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic manifest,” Dr. Aasta Mehta, Medical Officer of Women’s Health, Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Division of Maternal, Child and Family Health, said.

“When it comes to dismantling racism in our institutions and within the U.S. healthcare system, implicit bias is a driving factor that we must bring attention to and address,” Zahada Gillette-Pierce, Trainer at the sexual and reproductive health organization AccessMatters, said. “Implicit bias often shows up in healthcare settings when healthcare providers do not acknowledge pain, when providers restrict traditional cultural birthing practices, or ultimately take on a hierarchical decision-making role because of the stereotypes they hold or deeply-rooted biases.”

While COVID-19 has not proven to be any more dangerous to pregnant mothers than those who are not pregnant, there has been a significant change to birthing procedures in almost every hospital across the nation. Expectant mothers not only have to wear a mask for their entire hospital stay, they also have been limited to choose just one person to accompany them during delivery and their hospital stay. This has caused women who have given birth during the pandemic to lose out on the birthing support of midwives, doulas and other specialist who can ease the stress of childbirth and potentially lower instances of maternal mortality, according to an article published by the Harvard School of Public Health, and echoed by the testifiers today.

Nicole Chaney, a certified nurse midwife at the Reading Birth Center, said, “Twenty-two percent of Pennsylvania counties do not have a hospital with a maternity unit.”

Chaney not only advocates for expanded maternal care across the state, but she also said that integrating midwifery into more medical settings improve the birthing experiences and health out comes for both moms and babies, “When we value reproductive health as a society, and provide as many options as possible for people’s childbirth experience, the outcomes will improve.”

The following testified at today’s hearing:

  • Aasta Mehta, MD, MPP, Medical Officer of Women’s Health, Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Division of Maternal, Child and Family Health
  • Robert Ferguson, MPH, Chief Policy Officer, Jewish Healthcare Foundation
  • Dr. Mark Woodland, Chair & Clinical Professor OBGYN, Reading Hospital
  • La’Tasha D. Mayes, President & CEO, New Voices for Reproductive Justice
  • Nicole Chaney, CNM, Midwife, Reading Birth Center
  • Marianne Fray, CEO, Maternity Care Coalition
  • Emily C. McGahey, DM, MSN, CNM , Associate Clinical Director of The Midwife Center for Birth and Women’s Health, State Legislative Co-Chair, PA-American College of Nurse Midwives
  • Sindhu Srinivas, MD, MSCE, Director of Obstetrical Services, Vice Chair for Quality and Safety Department OBGYN, Co-Founder Heart Safe Motherhood Program, Penn Medicine
  • Zahada Gillette-Pierce, Trainer, AccessMatters
  • Kimberly Seals Allers, Maternal and Infant Health Strategist, Founder, Irth app.

Senators who attended this hearing include:

Jay Costa (D- Allegheny), Larry Farnese (D- Philadelphia), Katie Muth (D- Berks/Chester/Montgomery), Maria Collett (D- Bucks/Montgomery), Art Haywood (D- Philadelphia/Montgomery), and Lindsey Williams (D- Allegheny).

Representatives who attended include:

Mike Sturla (D- Lancaster), Thomas Caltigirone (D- Berks), Mark Longietti (D- Mercer), Chris Sainato (D- Lawrence), Kevin Boyle (Philadelphia/Montgomery), Melissa Shusterman (D- Chester/Montgomery), Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), Sara Innamorato (D- Allegheny), Joanna McClinton (D- Philadephia/Delaware), Wendy Ullman (D- Bucks), Mary Issacson (D-Philadelphia), and Joe Webster (D-Montgomery).

The Senate and House Democratic Policy Committees have hosted a number of hearings related to COVID-19, including the reopening of schools, the impact on nursing and veterans homes, food supply chain disruptions, the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on the African American Community, pandemic-related funding for childcare centers, and assuring that protective equipment and other support is accessible for all frontline workers.

A full recording of this hearing, and links to all previous hearings, is available at senatorboscola.com/policy.