TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. – Maternal mortality rates have been moving in the wrong direction. Across the U.S. and in New York state in particular, rates are higher now than they have been in a decade. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill Tuesday intended to reverse that trend.

The MOMS Act, standing for Modernizing Obstetric Medicine Standards, would make grant funding available for states and hospitals to implement best practices for monitoring and responding to pregnancy complications. It would fund training programs and equipment to ensure that maternal health issues like high blood pressure and hemorrhaging do not lead to preventable deaths.

In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available from the New York Department of Health, 25 mothers per 100,000 live births died from pregnancy-related causes in the state. Excluding New York City, the rate was 19.2 in the rest of the state.

In Tompkins County, the low number of annual births makes it difficult to track changes in maternal mortality. From 2012-2015 there was one maternal death per year in the county.

Samantha Hillson, the director of health promotion at the Tompkins County Health Department, said the county’s mothers are generally in good health. In part, she said, that is because Tompkins County already has a program in place to provide pre-natal and post-partum health services to at-risk mothers.

The county’s MOMS program, in this case standing for Medicaid Obstetrical Maternal Services, serves Medicaid-eligible women throughout pregnancy and in the first year after delivery.

“We’re really fortunate to have this program in our county,” Hillson said. The program pairs eligible mothers with community health nurses for pre- and post-delivery home visits. According to the program’s website, nurses monitor important health indicators like blood pressure. High blood pressure is an important warning sign that a mother’s health is at risk.

Gillibrand’s bill seeks to make monitoring for issues like high blood pressure routine throughout pregnancy and after delivery. In a press conference Tuesday, she said it is “absurd and dangerous that millions of women are not getting their most basic readings measured.” Over 60 percent of maternal deaths in the U.S. are preventable, she said, “but only if health professionals are monitoring and looking for them.”

According to Gillibrand, hospitals that have implemented best practices have seen significant drops in maternal mortality and pregnancy related complications. The state of California, where many of the protocols the MOMS Act recommends are in place, has seen a drop in maternal mortality even as rates have risen across the rest of the country according to an investigation by NPR and ProPublica.

Hillson said in Tompkins County there are areas where additional resources could improve maternal health. She said nurses in the MOMS program would like resources to bridge the gap between maternal health services and mental health services, including substance abuse treatment.

“They’re seeing some strong needs among the population they’re servicing, and that hasn’t really been addressed,” Hillson said.

The county would also benefit from having additional OB-GYN providers, she said. There are currently only two in the county, so MOMS patients often face long waits for services.

Overall, though, Hillson said Tompkins County’s mothers already have access to high quality services. “Our county is unique,” she said. Of Gillibrand’s efforts, she said, “It would be great to have more resources available so that more counties are able to offer services, especially pre-natal and post-partum support.”

Gillibrand’s bill focuses on the early detection of major pregnancy complications and preparations for emergency responses. She is also a co-sponsor on bills introduced by Senate colleagues Sen. Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Sen. Stabenow (D-Mich.) to address maternal health more broadly. As members of Congress become aware of the maternal health crisis, Gillibrand said, she is confident they will pass “these common sense solutions to real world problems.”

Featured image courtesy of N.Y. Department of Health.

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.