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Texas Lawmakers Are Running Out Of Time To Address The State's Maternal Death Crisis

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

The end of this year’s legislative session is a little more than a week away, and health advocates say lawmakers are missing an opportunity to deal with a public health crisis in the state.

Last year, researchers reported a sharp spike between 2010 and 2012 in the number of women in Texas who died while pregnant or soon after giving birth, but they don’t know why.

Earlier this week, an advisory panel on women’s health in Texas held a meeting on a range of issues. When it first opened the meeting to the public, a woman named Sheila Sorvari spoke.

“I am very, very shocked to see the recent data on maternal deaths in Texas,” she told the advisory council. “The news went around the world. We are 10 times more likely to die in Texas than Iceland, and we are on par with Azerbaijan. How did we fall that far? How did we get there?”

Sorvari had some theories about why this is happening. She blamed anti-abortion efforts that have made access to reproductive health harder to come by in Texas. She also pointed to the state’s high uninsured rate – the highest in the country.

But researchers still can’t pinpoint exactly why so many women are dying while pregnant. And advocates saw this legislative session as an opportunity to address the issue.

“State legislators and others lamented the tragic statistics,” said Adriana Kohler, senior health policy associate with Texans Care for Children. “The question was whether state leaders were willing to do anything about it.”

So far, she said, lawmakers have fallen down on the job.

For example, Kohler said two bills that could have helped were on the Texas House calendar last week, but a small group of House members blocked these bills along with a hundred others.

“One bill would take steps to improve prenatal care and prenatal visits for moms,” Kohler said. “The second bill would direct the state to study maternal mortality among black women – those who are most at risk.”

Those aren’t the only ideas to improve health outcomes for pregnant women, though.

Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, said Medicaid could have been expanded to include a full year of coverage after giving birth. Right now, low-income women are moved to a less comprehensive program 60 days after delivery.

Dunkelberg said if Republicans in the state were open to expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, women would have a better handle on health issues before they become pregnant and are later enrolled in the program.

“I think we are paying a real price for that kind of political struggle in terms of missed opportunities to do a better job of providing health care – particularly to our working poor adults in Texas,” she said.

Advocates point out there are still a couple bills that could pass in the coming days that would help address the issue.

The Texas House could take up a pair of Senate bills that would improve reporting of maternal deaths, which is an ongoing issue.

Just this week a Senate committee passed a House bill that would improve screening for postpartum depression. Suicide remains one of the leading causes of pregnancy-related deaths.

Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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