Philadelphia City Council holds hearing on maternal deaths and health disparities

The Committee on Public Health and Human Services marked International Women’s Day on Friday with a conversation about addressing inequities in local health care systems.

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Philadelphia City Councilmember Nina Ahmad.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Nina Ahmad, pictured in January, chaired hearings on International Women’s Day about inequities in local health care systems. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Members of Philadelphia’s City Council marked International Women’s Day on Friday with a conversation about racial disparities in maternal deaths. They invited community leaders, politicians and medical professionals to discuss causes and potential solutions.

The Committee on Public Health and Human Services, chaired by Councilmember at-large Nina Ahmad, convened the hearings to address inequities in local health care systems.

For many developed countries, fatal childbirths have been in  decline for decades. But the United States has seen maternal deaths rise. In 2021, 1,205 women died of maternal causes in the United States compared with 861 in 2020 and 754 in 2019. The maternal mortality rate for 2021 was 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with a rate of 23.8 in 2020. The rate of maternal deaths for Black women was 2.6 times that of white women, according to the CDC — a difference that controls for economics, geography or other health problems doesn’t erase.

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Michele Lamarr-Suggs, a pastor at Royal Generation and a certified midwife at Penn Medicine, told City Council members that the disparity pointed to wider problems in American health care and life.

“We have been trying to fix the symptoms of this crisis, but have turned a blind eye to the root causes,” Suggs said. “The roots of racism, the roots of classism and gender oppression.”

Dr. Aasta Mehta, an obstetrician-gynecologist and Medical Officer of Women’s Health for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, nearly brought the room to tears as she recounted the work of reviewing deaths from the complications of childbirth.

“I’ve read death certificates,” Mehta said. “The way people are found; who found them. I hear their voices in my head, and that’s why I do this work.”

Lamarr-Suggs and others who testified to the committee said that one way to lessen the risk of complications from childbirth was to embrace the use of doulas and midwives during the prenatal and birthing process. But many insurers don’t cover doulas or midwives in Pennsylvania, and doctors point to lower education requirements as reasons to limit midwives’ involvement. Others at the hearing pointed to a universal basic income (UBI) pilot for expectant mothers funded by the Philly Joy Bank as a solution, as well as finding ways to keep more Black doctors in the city.

An NIH-published study from 2016 found evidence that doctors often treat Black patients differently because they believe stereotypes about inherent physical differences tied to race.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Morgan Cephas proposed two bills in Harrisburg to try and tackle racial bias in health care, but she says she couldn’t garner enough support to shepherd the legislation through the sharply divided state House. “A lot of what we’re talking about today won’t see the light of day in Harrisburg, because it’s so divided,” Representative Cephas told the committee. “But trust and believe: A lot of things that you are doing here in Philly — so, for example, the Philly Joy Bank — they’re replicating across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Councilmember At-Large Nina Ahmad, who presided over the hearing, said the data was clear on birthing deaths. The next step, she said, was to present that information in ways that could persuade more people and spur them to action.

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“We have to go with this information, in an easily accessible manner, for the rest of our legislators to hear directly from us in Philadelphia,” Ahmad said.

Ahmad and other members in attendance, including Councilmember Curtis Jones, Councilmember Michael Driscoll and committee vice-chair Quetcy Lozada, predicted that the topic of the hearings could figure prominently into city business next week, when Mayor Cherelle Parker delivers her first budget address.

Jadon George is a journalism student at Temple University and an intern for WHYY’s The Pulse. He’s the assistant news director at Temple’s radio station.

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this story, Dr. Aasta Mehta was misidentified and has been since corrected.

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