State leaders call for passage of 'Momnibus' bill

Attorney General Letitia James (left, seated) and Senator Chuck Schumer (right, seated) pose with members of the Divine 9. Represented in the photo are members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated; Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated; Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated; Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated; Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated; Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated.

When Assemblymember Jennifer Lunsford was expecting a child, she had a midwife and a doctor. She had so much lactation support that, she "was like, 'enough with the lactation support,'" Lunsford said.

When Assemblymember Sarah Clark was expecting the first time, her birth was a 4-day process through which she was heavily medicated. Her child was in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Clark hemorrhaged and needed a blood transfusion.

"I never felt centered, I never felt like I knew what was going on ... and I literally had to sign for life-saving medicine within seconds of giving birth that I didn't consent to be given it, I didn't even know what I was signing," Clark said.

The difference between Lunsford and Clark's experiences is a boundary, visible only on political maps — Lunsford lives in the 135th Assembly District , while Clark lives in the 136th. Lunsford's district covers towns to the east of Rochester like Penfield, Webster and Perinton. Clark's encircles the city.

"When you cross the border from my district into Clark's district, life expectancy goes down, infant and maternal mortality goes up. Housing insecurity and food insecurity rates go up, and that's just crossing the border. You could walk it. That's unacceptable," Lunsford said.

For women of color, an already potentially dire situation can be — and often is — deadly.

"When you add in racism, you add in generational poverty, implicit bias, you get a system that is not believing women, is not believing Black women, and we need to re-center it," Clark said.

Thursday afternoon, local and state politicians, healthcare workers and community advocates joined in front of the the Anthony Jordan Health Center to talk about Black women's maternal health.

Among them were U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and New York Attorney General Letitia James, who announced a two-part initiative to solve the Country, New York and Monroe County’s maternal health crisis.

According to a statement from Schumer's office, New York exceeded the national average for maternal morbidity and mortality, terms that refer to the number of mothers who die or have damaging health outcomes — such as physical disability or mental illness — because of pregnancy or childbirth.

In Monroe County, there are about 25 maternal deaths per 100,000 births, according to the senator's office. The county's rate is 22% higher than the New York state average of nearly 21 deaths per 100,000 births.

Monroe County tops the national average about 17 deaths per 100,000 births by 45 percent, according to the statement.

Assemblymember Samra Brouk said the numbers are getting worse, not better.

"When we talk about statistics ... these are human beings. These are people who look like me. These are our neighbors, these are all of our neighbors," Brouk said.

"The U.S. ranks dead last, dead last in the developed world for maternal mortality," Schumer said.

"If you take the ten wealthiest countries in the world ... we're the worst. That cannot be the wealthiest country in the world. When compared to all the countries in the world, we're 55th," he said during the news conference. "How can the United States be 55th on something as precious and as important as maternal health?"

Holding the news conference at Jordan Health was intentional. Located in the heart of Rochester, Jordan Health serves people throughout Monroe County and Canandaigua.

According to Janice Harbin, President and CEO of Jordan Health, 72% of their 27,000 patients rely on Medicaid. The majority of the health center’s patients are people of color.

That is to say, issues concerning equity and maternal health affect Jordan Health center, and the community in which it is located, specifically. It also hearkens back to the health center’s founding.

Over 100 years ago, Jordan Health Center’s founders worked to aid new mothers. That work continues today.

Jordan Health sees about 450 pregnant women every year, of whom between 12 to 14% are likely to deliver babies that are low-birth weight, Harbin said.

Six of the nine Black Greek Letter Organizations, collectively called "The Divine 9," were represented at the event, including Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, whose membership officially established a partnership with March of Dimes in 2013.

Representatives from the Healthy Baby Network, Rochester's Black Nurses Association and Rochester's Community Health Improvement Workgroup, (the latter is an organization in which Jordan Health is a participant), local groups committed to working towards improving Monroe County's maternal and infant morbidity rates, were also present at the press conference.

The Healthy Baby Network found that having a doula prior to birth and for several months after birth significantly avoids and reduces morbidity and mortalities. The organization launched a program to train Rochesterians to become doulas — the recently launched program has graduated 29 of them so far.

The doulas, Executive Director Sherita Bullock said, are provided to the community free of charge.

"The work was a win-win, creating new jobs in the Rochester region while bolstering the local health care network's capacity to reverse Monroe's maternal and infant mortality rates," according to a statement from Schumer's office.

Schumer is advocating for the passage of the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, referred to simply as the "Momnibus," as part one of his initiative.

"This historic legislation will ensure maternal health outcomes and end racial and ethnic disparities and achieve maternal health justice," Schumer said.

Schumer's office cited a report by Rochester's Common Ground Health called "The Color of Health", which found that in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region, Black women are 51 percent more likely than white women to face "life-threatening delivery complications and other serious maternal morbidity illnesses."

The report also found that Black infants face a greater risk of death during birth than white infants, according to Schumer's office. The mortality rate for Black babies is around 13 per every 1,000 live births. That number is 4.2 per 1,000 for white babies.

He highlighted four points in the act. Firstly, Schumer said, it will focus on "growing and diversifying he perinatal workforce and training all hospitals on how to reduce maternal mortality. Improving data collection on maternal health."

And the act will invest in non-health issues, like housing and nutrition.

"Maternal mortality, particularly the racial disparities, has many different roots, including things like housing and climate change, which, of course, we know communities of color are particularly impacted by," Schumer said.

Attorney General James advocated for the passage of he Momnibus as well.

If it passes Congress, "our moms will get more funding for the professionals and programs that care for mothers, a workforce to care for moms that actually looks like the moms they care for," James said. "Children and babies are beautiful and cute, but they're hard work and there's nothing wrong with mom saying, I need a break.' there's nothing wrong with a mom saying, 'I'm struggling with this.'"

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