Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Denise Johnson discusses the importance of investing in maternal-child health during a press conference in Harrisburg on May 25, 2022. (Commonwealth Media Services photo)
Six of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties now classify as “maternal health deserts,” according to a new March of Dimes Report.
The report, which uses data from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, found that Cameron, Forest, Greene, Juniata, Sullivan, and Wyoming counties qualify as maternal health deserts because “there were no hospitals providing obstetric care, no birth centers, no OB/GYN and no certified nurse midwives.”
That is completely intolerable,” Pennsylvania Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson said in a statement, adding that more than 105,000 women between 18-44 years of age live in counties with little or no obstetric care.
Nationally, the report found that more than 2.2 million women of childbearing age live in maternity care deserts with Medicaid covering nearly 50 percent of births in maternity care deserts, compared to 40.1 percent in counties with full maternity care access.
In 2021, Pennsylvania agreed to extend Medicaid coverage to pregnant persons as part of the American Rescue Plan’s optional Medicaid expansion, increasing the length of coverage from 60 days to one year.
The overall maternal mortality rate in Pennsylvania is 82 deaths per 100,000 live births. For Black Pennsylvanians, who are already disproportionately impacted by poverty and have less access to adequate health care, the mortality rate is 163 per 100,000 live births, according to the Department of Health.
“It is important that in Pennsylvania, we do everything that we can to ensure Black women have access to quality, equitable maternal care. Maternity care deserts only make it more difficult for Black women to receive the care they need for the issues that are ‘common’ for our demographic, such as hypertension,” LaDeshia Maxwell, executive director of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on African American Affairs said in a statement Tuesday. “As we examine the findings of the March of Dimes report, I urge that we consider increasing the number of maternal care providers in Pennsylvania and better support Black women healthcare providers who are doing the work to ensure that Black women are receiving quality care.”
Johnson, a licensed OB/GYN, suggested several ways to improve maternal care in Pennsylvania, including through expanding access to doula and midwifery care and utilizing telemedicine and mobile services.
“I understand the importance of working harder to provide access to quality maternal care services for everyone during pregnancy and afterward,” Johnson said, calling on the state Legislature to address Pennsylvania’s high maternal mortality rate through “meaningful legislation.”
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