We are failing moms, pregnant people, families, and children

It is more dangerous to be pregnant and give birth in the United States than in any other developed country — and this is before accounting for the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. As a nation, commonwealth, and in our communities, we are facing a barrage of maternal and reproductive health crises.

Maternal and child health care is central to our work at the state Department of Human Services. As our reproductive rights are eroding before our eyes, we must talk about the reality of being pregnant and giving birth in Pennsylvania. Our nation’s maternal care system was founded in racism and inequity, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the cracks in our system have only widened with more people slipping through them to tragic and often preventable outcomes. We are failing moms, pregnant people, families, and children.

In Philadelphia, Black women are almost four times as likely to die of pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts.

Black women bear the heaviest burden of our failures. We are the only industrialized country where women are dying at a higher rate than they were 25 years ago, and pregnant and postpartum Black women are three times more likely than white women to die. In Philadelphia, Black women are almost four times as likely to die of pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts, and the city’s overall maternal mortality rate is higher than the national average.

Despite this national calamity, people across the country are imposing forced pregnancies without fixing the wide gaps in care that already exist. Pennsylvanians deserve better, and we as government officials have a moral responsibility to do more. We are in a distinctive position to take advantage of the unprecedented amount of federal dollars available to assist with recovery from the pandemic. We cannot turn the tide on these devastating maternal health outcomes without funding, and that is why the General Assembly must appropriate the almost $2 billion in American Rescue Plan funding that is sitting in Harrisburg unspent.

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The Department of Human Services is working to ensure we are doing our part to care for pregnant people, people who experience miscarriages, people seeking abortions, people who give birth, and babies with programs that support health diagnoses and postpartum treatment.

One of our goals is to help health systems establish in-patient programs for people who require hospitalization for postpartum behavioral health needs that will allow for their babies to be with them during the hospitalization. Keeping parents and babies together during treatment helps with bonding and overall success of treatment, as is evidenced in other countries where in-patient programs are the norm, not the exception.

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Unfortunately, the U.S. has no in-patient programs with 24-hour behavioral and physical health care that allow the birthing parent and baby to stay together. Our department is working to find ways to incentivize providers to offer this type of care, develop flexibilities in Medicaid to support the delivery of care, and build a case for a long-overdue investment in maternal health care in the United States.

In addition, we need our federal, state, and local government partners, hospitals and health systems, insurers, and advocates for families to come together to close these gaps in care. Policy decisions such as the ones outlined in the White House’s Maternal Health Blueprint can go a long way to establishing the U.S. as the best country in the world to have and raise a baby.

Black women bear the heaviest burden of our failures.

We can also work with education and advocacy groups like Maternity Care Coalition and March of Dimes to secure additional funds for health programs that can have a positive result on the long-term health and well-being of moms and babies.

We will not go backward. If we do, more people will die, more families will be shattered, and more children will be left parentless. We have the tools to do better by parents and babies by building, funding, and maintaining more programs, policies, and supportive systems that benefit everyone and help them lead healthy lives.

Meg Snead is acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, the commonwealth’s largest agency. The department helps more than 3 million Pennsylvanians through the programs it administers such as medical assistance, food and utility assistance, and more. Find out more about the department’s work at dhs.pa.gov.