Guest column

Celebrate mothers, and protect them

Like many moms across the state, I woke up this morning to flowers, homemade cards and extra hugs. Thanks in part to the maternal care I received during all three of my pregnancies, my children also woke up to a healthy mother.

For too many women in Arkansas, motherhood is dangerous--even deadly.

Arkansas ranks 50th in the U.S. for maternal health outcomes. That means more women in our state die from complications related to giving birth than anywhere else in the country. In fact, our maternal mortality rate is double the national average.

Arkansas experts also estimate that for every maternal death, there are at least 10 times as many close calls--incidents that can leave moms with long-term health problems. Meanwhile, one in every five Arkansas mothers experience postpartum depression, compared to one in eight nationally.

Poor maternal health is a problem that impacts every corner of our state, whether you live miles down a dirt road or near a downtown hospital.

As scary as this all sounds, solutions are within reach. According to the Arkansas Maternal Mortality Review Committee, a staggering 91 percent of maternal deaths last year could have been prevented with adequate intervention and care.

That gives me hope.

To understand how to save more mothers' lives, it's important to recognize how we got here--a devastating combination of poverty, rising mental health issues, racial disparities in medical care and of course, our geography.

Of all the issues Arkansas mothers face, by far the biggest driver of maternal mortality is lack of access to prenatal, delivery and postpartum services. Nearly half of our counties are "maternity care deserts," meaning there is no obstetric care whatsoever. Even in more populated areas, there isn't sufficient access to care, especially for women experiencing high-risk pregnancy or preterm birth.

Picture what happens if you don't own a car and have no one to drive you several hours to appointments. Maybe you don't have child care for your older kids, or you have a job that won't let you take time off. You could schedule a telehealth appointment, if you have reliable Internet access and you can afford it.

Now picture trying to handle this responsibility as a child yourself. Because in Arkansas, nearly one-third of births are to women under the age of 19.

Whether you are experiencing troubling prenatal symptoms (is this swelling and nausea normal? is it pre-eclampsia?), in active labor (will I make it to the hospital?) or concerned for your mental health (are these baby blues or something more serious?), these barriers can have life-or-death consequences.

Thankfully, momentum is building for change.

Recently I sat down with Christy Turlington Burns, founder of Every Mother Counts, and Dr. Nirvana Manning, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UAMS, to learn more about this topic. We were in Little Rock for the world premiere of "Giving Birth in America: Arkansas," a documentary highlighting the experiences of mothers in our state.

I learned that Arkansas is not alone in this crisis. The U.S. currently has the highest rate of maternal deaths of all high-resource countries, and is the only country in that group where maternal mortality has risen in the last 20 years.

I also learned that Arkansas is beginning to take real action.

In August, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced an expansion of the home visitation program for high-risk pregnancies and new mothers, and expanded Medicaid for pregnant women to include support for behavioral health.

Now we have a governor with young children herself, and several new pieces of legislation have been passed or are under consideration to give women more options and better care.

Recently, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill that reimburses hospitals for women on Medicaid who choose Long-Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC) immediately after birth, allowing mothers to intentionally space their pregnancies. This is particularly helpful for adolescent mothers, of whom up to 49 percent are pregnant again within one year.

Any mom will tell you that the first few months with a newborn are a whirlwind--a time when it's easy to overlook your own care in favor of your baby's. Thankfully, a bill has been filed to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months. Passing this extension is a crucial step to ensuring all moms have access to postpartum care in a state where 50 percent of births are covered by Medicaid, and 47 percent of pregnancy-associated deaths occur 43 days to one year after delivery.

UAMS is also piloting several programs, including Centering Pregnancy, which provides evidence-based prenatal care alongside health education and social support. So far, participants have spent an average of four times as much time with a provider and shown a 12 percent reduction in low birth weights. UAMS' Remote Patient Monitoring program also connects rural and high-risk patients with providers when there are health concerns.

Making progress also means listening more deeply to the concerns of the communities most impacted.

The Ujima Maternity Network is building a coalition of Black birth workers and maternal advocates dedicated to improving outcomes for Black mothers, who are twice as likely to die from childbirth in Arkansas.

At Heartland Forward, an economic development think tank, researchers have found that a lack of adequate and accessible health care for rural communities is resulting in lower quality of life. One solution: expand access to telehealth.

Heartland Forward recently launched Connecting the Heartland, developing local broadband plans, enrolling people in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program and helping to expand digital equity for all.

Arkansas cares about its children. We care about healthy families. The best way to support both is making sure Mom is also getting the care she needs. Loving our mothers means taking action to support and protect them through and beyond childbirth.

While we don't yet have all the solutions, today, as we celebrate motherhood, let's put maternal health at the center of the conversation.

Olivia Walton is chairperson for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. She also serves on the board of Heartland Forward. Olivia and her husband Tom Walton live in Bentonville with their three children.