‘Maternity care deserts’ found to be serious issue

Ask women whether there’s a hospital or clinic nearby where they can get help with a pregnancy, and the answer would be “no” for women in 54% of the nation’s counties, according to a new study by the March of Dimes.

“What we found in this report is really shocking,” said March of Dimes President Stacey Stewart.

The 2020 Nowhere to Go: Maternity Care Deserts Across the U.S. is based on the most recent data on availability of hospitals, birth centers, OB providers and health insurance.

“But, this is different from whether or not they have insurance, which is a whole other issue that we have to look at,” Stewart said. “This is — are there places they can go for the care that they need?”

About 7 million women in the U.S. of child-bearing age live in what Stewart characterizes as “maternity care deserts.”

“What that means is that these women, when they are pregnant, when they are about to deliver their babies or if their babies need care at the time of delivery — may be living in areas where it’s hard to access that care,” Stewart said.

Nearly half of the counties in Virginia (47%) are considered either a maternity care desert with no access to care or have very limited access. Prince George and Pittsylvania counties are among the 32% of counties that offer no access to maternity care.

“Maryland does slightly better. About 4% of the counties, there’s one county in the state, [Summerset] that’s considered a maternity care desert,” Stewart said. Dorchester, Caroline, and Garrett counties have limited access.

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D.C. is considered a county by the survey, so it technically has no maternity care deserts, but Stewart said service is lacking in Wards 7 and 8.

“This is an issue that every single state in the country is having to face,” she said. “It’s also why we’re launching a campaign called #BlanketChange.”

“We have got to comprehensively address our maternal and infant health crisis, and we have to do it with comprehensive blanket change.”

Stewart said the report was released and the #BlanketChange campaign launched before the November election as a call to action.

“If you’re voting for someone, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, we think everybody can get behind making sure that every mom and every baby is healthy,” Stewart said.

Recommended fixes to help moms and babies include wider availability of telehealth in rural areas, promotion of networks of different providers to include midwives and doulas, and longer term post-partum Medicaid coverage.

More than 40% of the babies born in the U.S. are covered by Medicaid. Stewart said many uninsured women access Medicaid just to have coverage during their pregnancy, then two months after giving birth, the coverage gets dropped.

“We know that in states that have expanded Medicaid coverage, they’re seeing better results in terms of maternal and infant health,” Stewart said. “We know we have to extend Medicaid at least one year postpartum.”

Stewart said the U.S. is considered the most dangerous developed nation in the world in which to give birth.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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