Diana Rauner joins call to aid new mothers

First state report on maternity deaths calls for state to expand Medicaid, health programs

 Diana Rauner is challenging the state to institute health-care visits for new mothers and their babies within three weeks of giving birth. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Diana Rauner is challenging the state to institute health-care visits for new mothers and their babies within three weeks of giving birth. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

A damning new report on maternity deaths in Illinois calls on the state to expand Medicaid and other health programs to treat new mothers for the entire first year after giving birth.

The “Illinois Maternal Morbidity and Mortality Report” was released Thursday in an event at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing attended by first lady Diana Rauner.

Drawing on data from 2008 to 2016, the report found that on average 73 Illinois women a year die within a year of pregnancy, and that African-American women are six times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women, with Hispanic women twice as likely.

Concentrating just on 2015, it found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths and 93 percent of violent pregnancy-related deaths were preventable.

“What this report highlights is not good news,” said Dr. Julie Morita, Chicago’s commissioner of Public Health.

Even so, leading state and national health officials tried to put a good face on the report’s recommendations going forward.

“What we can predict we can ultimately prevent,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the state Department of Public Health.

Dr. Robin Jones, chairwoman of the Illinois Maternal Mortality Review Committee which compiled the report along with another committee on violent deaths, emphasized three immediate measures: Medicaid eligibility should be expanded for new mothers from 60 days to a full year after birth, the state Department of Human Services should concentrate on substance-abuse and mental-health treatment for new mothers, and the state, hospitals, insurers, and citizens should all push to make needed changes.

“We all own this,” Jones said. “I own it. You own it. The state owns it. And the federal government owns it.”

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“We all own this. I own it. You own it. The state owns it. And the federal government owns it.”

Dr. Robin Jones (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

State Rep. Mary Flowers of Chicago also attended the meeting and, calling it “a crisis,” said Medicaid eligibility should also be extended to pregnant women as well as those who’ve already given birth.

U.S. Surgeon Gen. Jerome Adams acknowledged the “terrible disparities” in the demographic data for African-American and Hispanic women and said 700 U.S. women a year die from pregnancy complications.

“Those numbers aren't decreasing, they’re increasing across the country,” he said, pointing to how the United States has one of the highest maternity death rates in the developed world.

Citing those figures for minority women, Jones said, “That saddens me, and it should sadden you also.”

She added that the reasons for that are many and need to be addressed individually: poverty, employment, education, child care, and housing. “We have to acknowledge and address that,” Jones said.

Yet she quickly added that 30 percent of the deaths for white mothers involved drug overdoses — a cause of death relatively rare among African-American and Hispanic mothers, thus the need for heightened involvement by the Department of Human Services.

Adams agreed, saying that opioid use among pregnant women was following national trends, and that between that and mental-health issues, including postpartum depression, “stigma is our biggest killer.”

Emily Gibellina, director of governmental affairs at UI Health, spoke as a mother on the need for attentive care. In “the haze of having a newborn,” she said, she thought the health woes she was experiencing as a new mother were routine. Family members with health expertise urged her to seek treatment, and she was found to be experiencing heart failure with high blood pressure — a condition soon brought under control.

Calling herself “lucky” to have family that looked in on her and advised her, she added, “There are a lot of women across the U.S. who are not so lucky, particularly in minority populations.”

Stories like that prompted Rauner, who is also president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, to call for an expansion of programs in which new mothers and their babies are routinely visited after giving birth.

“We have a challenge to the state,” Rauner said, calling for “a state where every baby and new mother receives a visit within the first three weeks.”

She touted the Illinois Family Connects program launched earlier this year in Peoria and Stevenson counties. But thus far that’s been administered at the county level, not by the state. It’s also worth noting that her husband, Gov. Rauner, has resisted Medicaid expansion and recently said he would have vetoed it when the Affordable Care Act was implemented.

“There’s quite a bit more work that needs to be done,” Shah said. “Mrs. Rauner, we accept your challenge.”

Yet he tempered that with realism in a state struggling just to pay its current bills. “Funding is a challenge, to be sure,” Shah said. “The question to be asked is, can we afford not to fund it?”

When Flowers pressed for expansion of Medicaid to pregnant women, Shah said, “We agree,” adding, “There are administrative barriers that need to be lifted.”

Adams suggested that the way the society treats pregnant women and new mothers is indicative of its overall system of health, saying, “Maternal health is women’s health, women’s health is community health, and community health matters to everyone.”

“Today is by no means the end of the conversation,” Shah said, “but the beginning.”