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Racial Disparities are Endangering the Lives of Mothers of Color. We Must Respond.

The United States is in the midst of a maternal health crisis, and new data from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association shows that women of color continue to face a greater risk of childbirth complications compared to white women. As these disparities in maternal health care stem from a complex fabric of social, racial and economic issues, the time is now to confront and change the trajectory for mothers across the country.

  • June 1st 2021

By Kim A. Keck, president and CEO, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association

All expecting and new mothers, regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, or income deserve the same high quality maternal health care to ensure the healthiest outcomes for themselves and their babies. This should be non-negotiable. But the reality is that health complications are unacceptably high among women of color—and the disparities have been widening for years. 

As we continue to grapple with unconscious bias and racism that impact our country’s systems and institutions, we must take action to address the health disparities that have harmed far too many people, for far too long. This past April, Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) companies announced a new National Health Equity Strategy, a multiyear effort laser-focused on key health issues that disproportionately affect people of color. And as a first step, the Blues have committed to reducing racial disparities in maternal health by 50% in the next five years.

Let this sink in for a moment: Pregnant women in the United States are more than twice as likely to die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth than those in most other high-income countries in the developed world. Even more alarming, women of color, particularly Black and Native American women, are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their white counterparts. This disparity persists regardless of income or education.

Disturbingly, new data from BCBSA show that Black women under the age of 24 are more likely to experience severe childbirth complications than white women over the age of 35, an age group usually considered high risk. This underscores an overwhelming sense of urgency to build a new model of equitable health care. And we cannot do it alone. We’re calling on the country—public health experts, policymakers, community advocates, providers and industry leaders—to join us in the work to reduce these unacceptable health disparities.

One solution is the Black Maternal Health Caucus’ Momnibus package, which will help save the lives of new and expecting moms. The Momnibus includes investments in community-based organizations, data collection improvements, and programs to address social determinates of health like housing, nutrition and environmental risks. One of the 12 bills that make up the Momnibus, the Protecting Moms Who Served Act, was recently unanimously passed by the House of Representatives. I hope this momentum continues, and that Congress advances the other 11 bills aimed to improve health outcomes of pregnant women and mothers while breaking down long-standing racial disparities in maternal health.

BCBS companies are already leading this work. Our efforts start by leveraging existing programs and partnerships that are in place across the country. From using technology to identify and support high-risk pregnancies, to increasing support for doula coverage, incentivizing OB/GYN doctors to train in managing chronic conditions and implementing culturally appropriate interventions for mothers and newborns, BCBS companies are leaning into their deep roots in local communities to support at-risk women and women of color. We’ll continue to expand the scale of programs that work—and find the best new ideas—to help change the trajectory of maternal health in our country and advance health equity.

As we aim to close the gaps in maternal health care, we must also work to reduce racial disparities across the health care system. We’re committed to addressing broad social determinants of health, improving access to health coverage, driving equity through data analysis, expanding diversity among clinicians while also enhancing culturally appropriate care, and targeting chronic conditions that have plagued communities of color for far too long.

Health disparities are not a one-dimensional problem, and there is no one-dimensional solution. But at the heart of our work is this truth: Access to high quality and compassionate health care should not depend on the color of a person’s skin. The racial disparities we see in maternal health and across the board require a new system of health caring, not just health care. To get there, we need all players in the health care system working toward a more equitable future. 

 

Kim A. Keck is president and CEO of the BlueCross BlueShield Association, a national federation of 35 independent BlueCross and BlueShield companies that is the nation’s largest health insurance provider, covering one in three Americans.

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