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Chicago Sun-Times. Nov. 27, 2023.
A new report by the March of Dimes underscores the need for elected officials, government and the healthcare system to do more to save lives, especially Black women and babies.
263. That’s the number of women in Illinois who died during pregnancy or within one year of giving birth over a three-year period, according to a recent state report.
718. That’s the number of infants who died in Illinois in 2022, according to data released earlier this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, there were 20,538 deaths last year, a 3% increase over 2021 — the largest percentage increase in infant mortality in more than two decades.
If that’s not enough evidence we are failing pregnant mothers and their babies, a new report by the March of Dimes offers still more sobering figures. The report gives Illinois a grade of D+ for the number of preterm births in 2022. Out of 128,315 births last year, 10.57% — or 12,139 babies — were born prematurely, putting our state’s youngest residents and their mothers at risk for all sorts of health issues, not to mention premature death. And these numbers continue to be even more alarming for women and babies of color, especially Black women and infants. The preterm birth rate for Black women in Illinois is 1.6 times higher than the rate among all other women, according to the March of Dimes report.
“It’s unfortunate that we only see a modest improvement” in pre-births nationally and locally, Elizabeth Oladeinde, director of maternal and child health for the March of Dimes’ Chicago office, told us. “We know more work needs to be done.” A major reason Illinois received such low marks for preterm births: Too many pregnant women lack access to health care, Oladeinde said. Hospitals closing in the Chicago area have made it harder for women, particularly women of color, to regularly see health providers throughout their pregnancy — a key way to keep pregnant women healthy, leading to far fewer preterm births. Other hospitals — Jackson Park Hospital and Medical Center, St. Bernard Hospital and Advocate South Suburban Hospital — have reduced or eliminated maternal health services, Oladeinde notes. Too little access to health care
“You have these (health care) deserts, and lack of care for the population in and around that area,” forcing women to travel farther distances, making it harder for them to get the regular care they need, she said. Another factor: the ongoing staffing shortage among nurses, midwives and other health care providers, Oladeinde adds. There is some good news about how we’re doing: Illinois is one of 37 states, along with the District of Columbia, that has extended Medicaid health insurance coverage to low-income women from 60 days to one year postpartum. And Illinois is one of 39 states, plus Washington, D.C., to have adopted the Medicaid expansion, which allows expectant mothers greater access to preventive care during pregnancy.
Also, the state is one of 44 that has a federally funded mortality review committee that analyzes each maternal death to better understand and address the causes. The state’s most recent report on these deaths, which covered 2018 through 2020, concluded that 91% of pregnancy-related deaths might have been preventable, our WBEZ colleague Kristen Schorsch reported this month. The March of Dimes’ Oladeinde is right — “we are ahead of the game” in these areas — but there is much more elected officials in Illinois and state government should be doing to improve the dismal numbers.
The state has said it will help pay for doula care, joining 11 states and D.C. that already reimburse non-medical companions who physically and emotionally support a woman throughout childbirth. Another way the state can bring down the alarming number of mother and infant deaths is for the Illinois General Assembly to approve and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to sign a law that provides for paid family leave. And the health care system — hospitals, licensing bodies, medical schools and others — should make tackling implicit bias a top priority by offering robust training and engaging in regular conversation about why some patients’ health conditions routinely go undiagnosed or underdiagnosed. More awareness and action means more lives saved.
While the problem of preterm births and maternal and infant deaths may seem insurmountable, advocates like Oladeinde are right to remain optimistic. “We have to keep moving ahead,” she said. “Preventing just one death is a win.” Saving women and babies’ lives should be an easy goal to prioritize. Too many lives are depending on it.