VA's Maternal Health Services Would Improve Under Proposed Legislation

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In this Feb. 14, 2018, file photo, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., speaks on Capitol Hill, in Washington. Duckworth has given birth to a baby girl, making her the first U.S. senator to give birth while in office. The Illinois Democrat announced she delivered her second daughter, Maile Pearl Bowlsbey, on April 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
In this Feb. 14, 2018, file photo, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., speaks on Capitol Hill, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who was the first member of Congress to give birth while in office, has introduced legislation to improve maternal health care provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Protecting Moms Who Served bill, co-sponsored by Duckworth and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, would provide $15 million to the VA to invest in maternity programs at facilities that coordinate care for expectant veterans. It would also provide support for the women throughout their pregnancies and postpartum periods.

The bill directs the Government Accountability Office to study maternal mortality and severe illnesses related to pregnancy, focusing on racial and ethnic disparities in care and outcomes.

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Duckworth said the funding and review are needed because female veterans may be at higher risk for pregnancy and childbirth complications as a result of their military service.

"It's a tragedy every time a new mother dies from a preventable cause related to pregnancy or childbirth, and it's shameful that far too often those moms are women of color whose pain or symptoms have been overlooked or ignored. ... I'm introducing bipartisan legislation with Sen. Collins today that would commission the first-ever comprehensive study on this issue in relation to the veteran community," Duckworth said Wednesday.

"The U.S. has an unacceptably high maternal mortality rate, and the impact of this crisis on women veterans is not well understood," Collins said. "This bipartisan legislation would commission a study to examine ways to improve care coordination, identify gaps in coverage, and eliminate disparities."

In 2018, 658 women in the U.S. died during childbirth or within 42 days of having a baby, a mortality rate of 17.4 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That rate places the U.S. last among similar industrialized countries. According to the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that focuses on health care access and equity, the U.S. maternal death ratio for Black women is more than twice the rate for White women, 37.1 per 100,000 pregnancies, compared with 14.7 per 100,000, and three times the rate for Hispanic women, 11.8 per 100,000.

According to demographics published by the VA in 2018, the department provides medical services for roughly 439,000 female veterans, 43% of whom are of childbearing age.

While many VA facilities offer primary and specialty care services for female veterans, the department covers pregnancy care through arrangements with private providers, paying for prenatal care, delivery and postnatal care for eligible veterans, as well as health services for newborns for their first seven days.

Duckworth, who gave birth in 2014 to daughter Abigail while she was serving in the House of Representatives, is enrolled in VA health care and has been a vocal proponent of expanded health services for female veterans, cosponsoring legislation to improve services and access to care across the department.

The provision in the bill introduced Wednesday that would improve maternity care coordination at the VA likely stems from Duckworth's own experiences. During a New York Times event on post-9/11 veterans in 2018, she said she "almost went into collections" to have her daughter because the VA was slow to pay the bills for her maternity and postpartum care.

"If I, a U.S. senator, [am] having trouble getting their health care bill paid by VA and I'm 100% disabled, what does that do for a 17-year-old with post-traumatic stress who is trying to get help? We have to fix this," she said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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