From 2012 through 2015, 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; since then, hundreds more have likely perished. While their cases reflect the problems that contribute to maternal mortality across the United States — gross medical errors, deeply entrenched racism, structural deficiencies in how care is delivered — another Texas-size factor often plays a significant role: the state’s vast, and growing, problem with health insurance access.
About one in six Texans — just over 5 million people — had no health insurance last year. That’s almost a sixth of all uninsured Americans, more than the entire population of neighboring Louisiana. After trending lower for several years, the Texas rate has been rising again — to 17.7% in 2018, or about twice the national average.
The numbers for women are even worse. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured women of reproductive age in the country; a third were without health coverage in 2018, according to a DSHS survey. In some counties, mainly along the Mexico border, that estimate approaches 40%.
Public health experts have long warned that such gaps can have profound consequences for women’s health across their lifespans and are a critical factor in why the U.S. has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world. Texas’ maternal mortality numbers have been notably troubling, even as errors in key data have complicated efforts to understand what’s going on and led skeptics, including the governor, to question whether there’s really a crisis.
Hardly anyone outside the policy world has taken a deep look at how these insurance gaps play out for women in the second-largest state in the U.S. — at how, in the worst-case scenarios, lack of access to medical care endangers the lives of pregnant women, new mothers and babies.
ProPublica and Vox have spent the last eight months doing just that — combing through government data and reports, medical records and research studies, and talking with scores of women, health care providers, policymakers and families of lost mothers around the state. We learned about Rosa Diaz and dozens of others, mostly women of color, by scouring medical examiner’s databases for sudden, “natural” deaths, then inspecting investigator and autopsy reports for clues about what went wrong.
The picture that emerges is of a system of staggering complexity, riddled with obstacles and cracks, that prioritizes babies over mothers, thwarts women at every turn, frustrates doctors and midwives, and incentivizes substandard care. It’s “the extreme example of a fragmented system that cares about women much more in the context of delivering a healthy baby than the mother’s health in and of itself,” said Eugene Declercq, professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health.
Most of the mothers whose cases we examined were covered by Medicaid for low-income pregnant women, a state-federal health insurance program that pays for 53% of the births in Texas, more than 200,000 a year, and 43% of all births nationwide. In Texas, the program covers OB-GYN visits, medications, testing and nonobstetric care, from endocrinologists to eye exams.
But the application process is so cumbersome that women in the state have the latest entry to prenatal care in the country, ProPublica and Vox found. It can take months to be seen by regular providers and even longer to access specialists. This poses the greatest danger for high-risk mothers-to-be — as many women on Medicaid are, having had no medical care for significant parts of their lives. Then, roughly two months after delivery, pregnancy Medicaid comes to an end, and the safety net gives way to a cliff. For many new mothers, the result is a medical, emotional and financial disaster.
More than half of all maternal deaths in the U.S. now occur following delivery, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with as many as 24% happening six or more weeks after a woman gives birth. In Texas, the proportion of late-postpartum deaths is closer to 40%, with black women bearing the greatest risk. “To lose health care coverage really has a tremendous potential to worsen outcomes,” said Dr. Lisa Hollier, chief medical officer for obstetrics and gynecology for Texas Children’s Health Plan and chair of the state’s maternal mortality review committee.
This is a long excerpt, but there’s a lot more to the story, so please read the whole thing. There are numerous policy decisions at fault here – not expanding Medicaid, low Medicaid reimbursements, cutting off Planned Parenthood and substituting in wholly inadequate alternatives, and more – and all of them can be laid at the feet of the state’s Republican leadership. Whoever runs against Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton in 2022 should loudly and repeatedly assert that every maternal death in Texas is their fault. I keep saying this, and it keeps being true: Nothing will change until we have different, and better, government in this state. There’s no other way to do it.