A Conversation With Vice President Kamala Harris on Maternal Health

Maternal Health, Kamala Harris, Vice President
Photo courtesy of BELatina and Instagram @kamalaharris

While the world seems to be in permanent chaos, there are those who remain at the forefront, working for the voiceless and inspiring us with their initiatives. Such is the case of our current Vice President, Kamala Harris. She is bringing innovative ideas and proposals to find solutions to problems that plague our communities and are not foreign to the first woman of color to be Vice President of the United States.

In one of her current developing proposals, Harris is pushing for maternal health, an issue that’s very close to her heart.

BELatina News was honored to be a part of a conference call with the Vice President herself, where she spoke about her past and what this issue means to her. She is so involved because her mother was a breast cancer researcher.

“My mother was a breast cancer researcher, and I grew up hearing my mother battle over what needed to happen to ensure that women are treated with dignity in the system,” the Vice President told us, “[And] that their health issues and concerns are addressed in a way that approaches a woman with dignity and with an ability to take women seriously when they speak; take seriously their concerns. Growing up as a young girl, I don’t think I fully realized the impact that all that had on my current work and my perspective on this.”

She then continued to summarize a meeting she had the day before about the progress she and her team have been making so far.

“It was about recognizing that we have to take advantage of the knowledge that we have about what is going on with women in the health care system, that we have to treat women in a way that we understand. This is not just about health care. It’s about treating the mother as a whole human being,” she told the conference. “It is about understanding that we have in our nation we are looking at the fact that more women are facing death because of childbirth than in any other developed nation.”

“We are looking at the likelihood that Black women are three times more likely to die in connection with childbirth, that native women are twice as likely to die, that rural women are one and a half times likely to die,” Harris continued. “We are dealing with this issue in a way that also understands that not only should we have and which we did, we led the first-ever White House Maternal Day of Action – which was important for a number of reasons – but we actually need action. So we have done the convening for the first time on the stage of the White House, but also we are pushing for structural change around how this issue is addressed.” 

Harris and her team are combating this by proposing an extended 12-month Medicaid coverage, a 10-month expansion of the current 2-month coverage for postpartum care. As of now, Michigan is the first to implement the proposal.

Other important notes from the conference include Harris’s consideration of those who are pregnant and homeless.

“Five to 20% of young homeless women are pregnant,” the Vice President said. “Think about what that means in terms of, again, looking at the whole human being when we are talking about this issue and considering an issue like housing, affordable housing, housing security. We are looking at it in terms of the fact that I will say as a base point: when you’re looking at trauma, there’s so much trauma in society in general.” 

Because of all this collective trauma, Harris is looking to step in and work directly with the Department of Labor – specifically doulas – to ensure the employment of skilled workers who know the subject firsthand.

After the opening segment, the Vice President allowed a few journalists to ask questions. In this Q&A installment, BELatina News had the opportunity to speak directly with the Vice President.

First media outlet: As a Black woman and a new mom who [is] surrounded [by a] community of other moms, I’ve heard plenty of stories of Black women feeling unheard while in labor, similar to the experience of Serena Williams. What is being done to combat implicit bias by medical professionals while women are in labor?

You actually have raised what I think is one of the biggest issues here,  which is bias, racial bias, and gender bias within the healthcare delivery system. Because to your point, this was the work that I did in attempting to pass legislation when I was in the Senate. When you look at the fact that Black women are three to four times more likely to die in connection with childbirth, when you look at the issue closely enough, yes, you don’t have to scratch the surface too deep.

You will see that the reality is that when that Black woman walks into a clinic or a hospital, or an emergency room, she is just not taken as seriously as others. When you look at the issue – and this is the experience that you are sharing – in terms of the statistics on Black women [and] in terms of maternal mortality, regardless of their education level or their economic status, to your point, Serena Williams being a prime example of that point, it literally comes down to racial bias.

So what we did in terms of my bill and what we are still pushing for is [for there to be] training for people in the healthcare profession. Again, that would include doctors, nurses, EMTs, and all of the people in the healthcare delivery system to ensure that when she speaks, she is taken seriously.

BELatina News: According to the available information, what rural areas, particularly POC and Latino areas, does the FY23 Budget Request include?

What we are looking at in terms of the budget is that we are proposing that about half a billion dollars will go to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity rates. And it will be about the expansion of maternal health initiatives in rural communities because, to this point, we know that women in rural communities are at least one and a half times more likely to die in connection with childbirth than other women.

And then also the funding in the proposed budget will go to what we just previously discussed, which is the implementation of implicit bias training for health care providers and also to create pregnancy medical home demonstration projects. We need to make sure that we are actually, again, providing on-the-ground training and support and coordinating the care.

So that’s part of what’s happening. But the point about rural communities, I mean, remember that what we’re talking about in terms of rural communities is both the issue of hospitals and doctors. I’ve spent time in rural communities, including places like South Carolina to Iowa. And I will tell you that hospitals shut down in those communities for a variety of reasons that have to do with how we have structured the health care delivery system and the incentives that are about funding.

And what then creates incentives for hospitals to stay open versus the campaign rent, essentially. So, the net result of all of that is that you find in rural communities that there’s really a dearth of adequate health care.

So one, we need to address that. The availability of healthcare professionals with easy access for the people who need that help. But two, there are some of the substitutes we all figured out during the pandemic. One substitute for that, if you can’t go to a doctor’s office, one substitute for that is telemedicine. Right? And we have found that for rural communities, that has been a great way to bridge the gap.

However, another issue for rural communities is a lack of high-speed Internet. So if you couple these points: inadequate availability of healthcare within the regions in which people live, and it’s easy enough for them to get to, coupled with no high-speed Internet and therefore no telemedicine, you’re looking at just layers of inaccessibility that result in predictable difficulties for that woman and her family, much less low outcomes, and based on what should be our standard of care.

Third media outlet: As you mentioned, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are applying new birthing-friendly-labeled hospitals that meet those standards from Internal Health. I wondered if you could speak to what some of those standards are and how they were selected.

We want to get feedback. We want to get the voices of women going through the system. We want to get the voices of midwives and doulas and doctors and hospitals themselves. We have expedited the timeline. And so we’re going to actually anticipate rolling it out in the fall of 2023. What I can tell you, though, is that hospitals are going to be graded and judged, evaluated on things like are they reporting maternal care outcomes and whether or not they’ve implemented safety measures to address complications with pregnancy.

The official fact sheet on the conference call can be found here.