Delayed: Mandatory maternal mortality rate data won’t be ready for Texas lawmakers in time for 2023 session

Vanna Waldron, left, evaluates Erika Pion at the Holy Family Birthing Center in Weslaco. (Reynaldo Leal For The Texas Tribune, Reynaldo Leal For The Texas Tribune)

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For the first time, a state report detailing the latest data on how many Texans die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications will not be ready before the Texas Legislature convenes next year.

The delay of the state’s maternal mortality report — what would have been the fourth one since 2014 — was first disclosed two weeks ago by Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, during the state’s maternal mortality committee meeting.

“I have directed the committee to delay publishing the report until it completes its review of the 2019 cohort,” Hellerstedt wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott alerting him to the delay. “Reviewing and publishing data on a full-year basis is a standard practice within public health and will allow state leadership and the public to have the most complete picture of maternal mortality in Texas.”

The announcement means more delays in tackling what has been a persistent problem in Texas. While Texas has less than 200 pregnancy-related deaths a year, Black women are more impacted than any other demographic.

For nearly a decade, the state has been trying to more precisely pinpoint both the causes of and solutions to maternal mortality in Texas. Because of the pandemic, there have been added delays in getting the latest data — from 2019 — completed in time for the 2023 Texas Legislature.

State lawmakers of both parties have criticized news of the data delay, first reported by the Houston Chronicle.

“This delay is a frustrating disappointment and comes at a time when Texas must support moms and families more than ever,” House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement. “The Texas House prioritized our mothers and children during the 2021 legislative session through our chamber’s legislative health care package, Healthy Families, Healthy Texas, and will undoubtedly do so again when the legislature reconvenes.”

State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, said this data is critical to determining how to improve the state’s pregnancy-related death rate.

“Texas pregnant moms and babies can’t afford to wait,” she said. “We need the mortality/morbidity data released like our lives depend on it, because they actually do.”

State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, said on Twitter that the delay is politically motivated because the data will come after the November elections.

“So Dems argue that the abortion ban will kill more women in Texas … a state that leads in maternal mortality,” Crockett tweeted. “And what does Texas do? Somehow miss the count of maternal deaths because facts may hurt them in the midterm.”

“This has nothing to do with the elections,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Department of State Health Services.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 700 women die in the U.S. each year from pregnancy or delivery complications.

In 2013, the Texas Legislature created the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force, which became the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee. They began meeting the next year in an effort to reduce the number of women dying from pregnancy-related deaths.

From 2012-15, at least 382 pregnant women and new mothers died in Texas from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the most recent data available from the Department of State Health Services.

Texas accounts for about 10% of all births in the United States, about 400,000 annually, according to the University of Texas System’s Office of Health Affairs. Nationally and in Texas, maternal mortality rates are higher among women of color, particularly Black women.

Severe maternal morbidity affected more than 50,000 women in the United States, or about 14.4 per 1,000 deliveries. In 2015, the latest numbers available, the severe maternal morbidity rate in Texas was 18.4 per 1,000 deliveries, according to the state’s 2020 report, which was prepared before the 2021 legislative session.

But there’s no simple way to get at these numbers, which are pulled from a variety of sources including hospitals, Medicaid and death certificates.

Texas is unlike any other state in its data collection because it has to take an extra step of redacting all the maternal mortality records before they are reviewed by those collecting the data. It’s a quirk of existing state law. A fix was introduced in a previous legislative session but failed to pass, meaning data collection on this type of data is even more arduous, according to the state health agency.

“There’s definitely barriers and issues that makes this take a long time and particularly in Texas,” Van Deusen said. “We’re the only state where the records have to be redacted.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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