Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver) discussed how American Rescue Plan dollars are being used in Colorado to improve maternal health outcomes for Black women with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) during a Feb. 14 Instagram live stream.

In 2021, Colorado received $3.8 billion in federal stimulus from the American Rescue Plan Act, which Herod has used to fund measures designed to improve healthcare for pregnant people.

“We have fallen behind the developed world in many ways, but this is one,” said Bennet. “We’ve got the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Today a woman is twice as likely to die from pregnancy complications than her mother was a generation ago. While those numbers are true for all women in the United States it’s far worse for Black and Indigenous women, regardless of their income or education levels, which tells you there’s something going on here that doesn’t just have to do with class. The rate of maternal mortality among Black and Indigenous women is three times higher than other women in a country where other women are already not seeing the results that we’re seeing and I think it’s largely due to implicit bias and racism that’s ingrained in our healthcare system. I think all mothers deserve to be healthy and healthier moms mean healthier kids and healthier families. We need to address this crisis and root out racism in our health care system to ensure that every woman, no matter who they are, has access to necessary comprehensive care they deserve and they need and that everyone should expect for their loved ones.”

For Herod, the focus on maternal health care is a family tradition.

“My mom was an OBGYN,” she said. “She became an OBGYN because she saw, particularly Black women, were having disastrous health outcomes when it came to their pregnancies. The children were impacted as well. I think she quickly realized when she joined the military, when she started along her career path, that it wasn’t just Black women. This was happening to women across our country, but not across the globe, in the same way. This has been an issue that’s been really important to me for a long time.” 

A 2020 report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Enviornment, “Maternal Mortality in Colorado 2014-2016,” found that 17% of deaths of women during pregnancy or in the year afterward were suicides. The second-highest cause of death was drug overdoses.

“When you talk about the Colorado legislation, we know that the need for infant care and support goes beyond when a child is born,” said Herod. “It goes beyond a year, but at least that year we need to make sure there’s coverage for moms to actually ask the questions they need to ask, to make sure they have the support they need so their child is healthy. In that learning we’ve found it’s also the mom that needs that support postpartum as well, so what are we doing around mental health for those moms? I’m really glad that the federal dollars are looking at this. Do we need to make sure that we have better early childhood care, better mental health care for the mom, does the mom need some type of counseling or substance misuse treatment? Do we need to think about nutrition? These things are all important, but if we think about the predeterminant factors of health, we know that as Black folks we are more likely to have negative health outcomes. Indigenous people as well. Of course, that’s going to have a large impact on our childbearing, and that’s when we really have to step in and change something and do something about it.”

To address those concerns Herod built on work started by state Sen. Janet Buckner (D-Aurora) to extend Medicaid coverage for moms and new babies for up to 12 months postpartum.

“[Buckner’s task force to study infant and maternal mortality] led to the bills that we able to pass in Colorado,” said Herod. “Yes, to extend coverage. Yes, to think about what types of services do moms need in the birthing stage and then after they deliver, and can we have doulas in the rooms with these mothers. Do we need more midwives and why do we only have one Black midwife in Colorado? What are we doing to really ensure we improve outcomes inside the system and support families who choose a different path to go outside the system to improve outcomes? This has been an issue that’s been raised by Black moms and Black women across the country.”

According to Bennet, the focus on improving outcomes for pregnant people of color will improve outcomes for everyone.

“Medicaid has been a godsend for new mothers, because it pays for almost half, or more than half, of births in the United States of America,” he said. “What we’re trying to do now is say, ‘Look, everybody’s responsibility doesn’t stop the day the kid is born.’ You need to have some supports in place, through Medicaid, for people to be able to get health care, mental health care. Everybody wins as a result because everybody’s healthier. You have less chronic disease and the whole society is better off.”

Herod also said her bills (SB21-193, SB21-194, and others), and funding from the American Rescue Plan, will bring more people of color into health care fields focused on maternal health.

“It will allow us to create a pipeline of therapists and counselors and doulas and supporters who are also people of color,” she said. “When we’re actually funding those career paths then I know, as a Black woman, I can go to another person who understands my culture, who understands my background and I can build that trust and a relationship with them so I can provide the best care I need for myself, for my health, my mental health and my child, should I have one.”

These efforts will work to improve poor outcomes for underserved communities, she said.

“Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related trauma than our white counterparts,” said Herod. “Our white counterparts are even more likely to die than their counterparts in other countries. It’s important that we use these resources not as a one-time infusion of cash, but as a way to change things, fundamentally, forever, moving forward.”