Earlier this fall, the Department of State Health Services was planning to release a report examining the issue of maternal mortality and persistent racial disparities that occur in addressing the issue. Then, with little warning, the department announced the report would be delayed.
Jeremy Blackman, who covers health and politics for the Houston Chronicle, joined the Texas Standard to talk about the delay and why advocates think the midterm elections played a role. On Friday – after this interview aired – the department’s interim commissioner, Dr. Jennifer Shuford, announced that the report will be released as early as next week. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:
Texas Standard: Before we get to the actual report, the issue of maternal mortality is one that hits close to home for a lot of folks. Where does the state of Texas stand on this right now?
Jeremy Blackman: We have a pretty high rate of maternal mortalities, but we really don’t know what’s happening lately in the state because our data is so outdated. We have currently data from 2013. So part of the issue here was the report that was supposed to come out this year was going to jump us forward to 2019 so that we have a better glimpse at what is happening with maternal mortality in Texas.
Well, tell us a little bit more about what this report was actually supposed to be detailing and where it was supposed to be getting the data that it needed for it.
Yes, so this data is brought in from hospitals that report deaths shortly after or actually up to a year after delivery. And then a review committee scours through all of the records and those cases to determine if that death was pregnancy-related. And then the report that was going to come out this year on maternal mortality, this was going to be the first time looking at 2019 data, and they were going to look at the causes behind racial disparities in those pregnancy-related deaths. Black women are three times as likely as white women to die from pregnancy-related causes, and most of those are preventable.
Well, you know, there are all types of reports that are done by cities and governments that get delayed, and especially post-2020 with the pandemic disruptions. What are advocates saying about the delay here?
Yeah, the frustrating thing for advocates here is that there was no heads up, that there were not any of the pandemic-related delays that were at play here. It wasn’t a short term delay either. Sometimes these reports get delayed a few weeks, and that’s understandable. In this case, it was not only going to be delayed until after the November midterms, but it’s also potentially going to be delayed until after the coming legislative session, which means that lawmakers in Austin won’t have the opportunity to use the data for any sort of policymaking until the next session, which would be in 2025.
You know, I can remember several years back, there was a lot of talk about Texas leading the nation in maternal mortality rates. And then there was this hue and cry over whether or not the data was accurately recorded and calling into question that ranking, which was much discussed at the time. And I suppose it raises some questions about whether or not politics may, in fact, be involved in the delay or has that come up?
I mean, with this type of data, it’s a constant balance between making sure you’re as accurate as you can be and really determining which deaths are pregnancy-related, but also getting information out to the public as quickly as you possibly can so that there is an effective public health response. Because what’s the benefit of having perfect data but having it come ten years too late? So I think the constant balance between that is something that state health officials are constantly thinking about in this case, the fact that it was happening right around this campaign season – especially with Governor Abbott’s reelection campaign against Beto O’Rourke, which he won. There have been a lot of concerns from advocates that there could have been some sort of politics happening here.
Jeremy, bottom line here: Is there something that can be extracted sort of as a bottom line take away from what we already know?
Well, for example, there’s some data that we recently learned about that showed that the rate of severe hemorrhaging during pregnancy is still persistently high for Black women, while it’s actually improved for Hispanic women and white women in Texas. So this kind of data really helps hospitals, doctors and policymakers try to drill into what is happening at the ground level to prevent progress in these demographics. So that’s what we need the data for.