Q&A with Rep. Robin Kelly: 'It was safer to have a baby 25 years ago'

Rep. Robin Kelly introduced legislation called the Mothers and Offspring Mortality & Morbidity Awareness (MOMMA) Act to address the growing problem of women dying due to pregnancy-related complications. (Getty/AleMoraes244)

Charles Johnson never imagined he might lose his wife, Kira, during the birth of their second child.

This was a woman who was in good shape, he said. She ran marathons. And she was going to a well-respected hospital for a routine, scheduled C-section.

“We walked into Cedars-Sinai medical center on April 12 of 2016 with a woman who was not just in good health, she was in exceptional health," Johnson testified before lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week. "We went in for what was supposed to be the happiest days of our lives and walked right into a nightmare."


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His wife died following multiple delays in care in the hospital after she began exhibiting symptoms of internal bleeding, he said.

Rep. Robin Kelly. (U.S. House)

RELATED: Lawmakers: States need to gather better data about mothers dying in childbirth

Hatchett reached out Kelly, who is the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust and the co-chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls. Kelly ultimately introduced legislation called the Mothers and Offspring Mortality & Morbidity Awareness (MOMMA) Act.

The measure would expand postpartum Medicaid coverage to women for one year after delivery, standardize data collection across the U.S., and establish and enforce national emergency obstetric protocols for maternal and postpartum care and culturally competent care to address major racial disparities.

It is a sister measure to the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2018 introduced in the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., which also calls for standardized data collection and which Johnson was testifying in support of.

But it would also address best practices and raise awareness at hospitals around the issue, Kelly said.

"When you get pregnant, you should be able to become a mother without all these complications," Kelly said. "We're hoping to educate people about what is going on so that they'll know to ask questions and make sure their voices get heard and things get done."

Here's what else Kelly had to say about the issue when we caught up with her recently to discuss the issue of maternal mortality. 

What is it about this issue that made you want to draft this legislation? This cuts across all socioeconomic levels. As I read more about it, I found out that 700 women die a year. I had no idea it was to that degree. We got more and more interested, talked to other people who got really sick and could have died from it and we got pulled in.

What would this measure do? We're trying to have standardized data, have standardized protocols like the areas and the hospitals that are doing well with this and don't have the incidents. What are they doing that some of the places that are having problems aren't doing? We want to have those standardized protocols and find best practices. … Sometimes you need the federal government to step in and have national standards and protocols.

What are some of the issues at play? This happens three to four times more with women of color. What I think is [health providers] just don't take women seriously. They ignore when we have a complaint and with Judge Hatchett's daughter-in-law, they ordered a test and then took their time completing the test. When they finally did, it was too late. Women aren't taken seriously and I think because there aren't standardized procedures, that's an issue. And the reason we want to collect the data is, we just don't know.

What sort of support have you gained for the MOMMA Act?  When I've done press conferences in my district, I had the OB-GYNs there, the national medical associations, we've had doulas. We have member support now. But one thing that's disappointing is, we haven't had a Republican support. This is not a partisan issue, because it happens to women across the spectrum. I did talk to the surgeon general when we met during the Congressional Black Caucus annual legislative conference and he was going to try to help me get some support. … I'm hoping at least the women get on. But men have daughters and wives.

RELATED: Senate committee proposes $50M to prevent mothers dying in childbirth

How would this be paid for? First, we'd have to get it extended to a year because we know the complications sometimes don't show right away. We spoke to one woman who went into a coma a couple weeks after having the baby. She was home. We have to look at budgets, what the priorities are and what are our values? Do we want children growing up without moms? I'm sure there is something in the federal budget that we can direct toward paying for this because it's that important. I don't have the figure of how much it would cost. It would depend. But if things improve it wouldn't cost as much.

What would you say to leaders in health systems about this issue? It was safer to have a baby 25 years ago than it is now. When you think about that, that is absolutely ridiculous. And for our peer nations, our ranking is so high in the wrong place. It makes no sense.

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