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North Carolina receives millions in federal grants to address maternal mortality ‘crisis’

Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

North Carolina will receive millions of dollars from the federal government to help address a worsening maternal health “crisis.”

The $4 million award is part of the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration’s plan to combat maternal mortality nationwide. Other states will receive similar federal grants, the details of which will be announced next week, according to an HRSA spokesperson.

Earlier this year, a News & Observer analysis found that the number of pregnancy-related deaths nearly doubled from 2019 to 2021 in North Carolina and that the state’s maternal mortality rate was higher than the U.S. overall.

The analysis also found that Black North Carolinians are more than twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.

Many experts believe these deaths are not caused by a single problem but by a variety of deep-rooted systemic failures like discrimination in the health care system, few accessible maternal health providers, and a lack of postpartum mental health resources.

“There is not one magic solution to fix this,” said Dr. Michael Warren, associate administrator of the national Maternal and Child Health Bureau. “This is multifaceted. And the awards that you all are getting today in North Carolina really reflect that.”

The federal money will be divided among several NC programs that aim to address these different contributors.

  • $2 million will fund programs that offer services — like doula services and parent education classes — directly to pregnant and postpartum women in Charlotte and Cumberland and Polk counties. There are already a handful of similar federally funded programs scattered throughout the state. The money will also help fund efforts to address environmental factors that impact health outcomes, like housing and nutrition.

  • East Carolina University’s midwifery program will receive more than $900,000 in order to grow the number of nurse midwives in the state.

  • The NC Department of Health and Human Services will receive $750,000 to help maternal health providers respond to mental health problems and substance use disorders. The grant will be used to train providers to respond to common mental health concerns and connect mental health experts virtually for a consultation if the problem is more complex.

  • NC DHHS will also receive $170,000 to help new mothers and their families navigate new Medicaid enrollment rules, which were brought on by the end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. More than half of the babies born annually are covered by Medicaid.

Warren said the health officials will evaluate the success of these programs by looking at whether they lead to incremental progress like connecting more pregnant women with prenatal care or producing more trained midwives.

The ultimate aim, though, is to make the U.S. the “best country in the world to have a baby,” an ambitious goal given that the United States has one of the highest maternal mortality rates among developed nations.

“We have a lot of work to do to get there,” said Carole Johnson, the administrator of HRSA. “But that’s our goal.”

Teddy Rosenbluth covers science and health care for The News & Observer in a position funded by Duke Health and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

Pregnancy can be risky in the US. In North Carolina, the threat of death is even higher.

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Charlotte women strive for better outcomes amid NC’s high Black maternal death rate