After Scandal, Virginia's Maternal Mortality Disparity Gets New Attention

Feb 20, 2019

The blackface scandal may end up derailing the political career of two statewide elected officials.

But it may also end up changing policy in Virginia.

Black women in Virginia are more than three times more likely to die in childbirth than any other race, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Virginia Health Secretary Daniel Carey says racism might play a role in that grim statistic. “Experiencing racism is thought to be one of those things that sets off the fight or flight response that individuals have, and when you have that ongoing psychological stress it leads to worse outcomes in diabetes and in heart disease and in cancer care,” Carey said

For members of the Legislative Black Caucus, the fact that Cabinet officials are just now coming around to that realization is a mixed blessing. “I’m glad there was a little awakening there. Yes. It’s something I’ve known for a long time,” said Delegate Charniele Herring, a Democrat from Alexandria. “That’s the reality of most African-American women. So I’m glad that there’s a slight awakening there,”she added.

The disproportionate maternal mortality rate among African-American women has perplexed Virginia health officials for years. It’s a mystery that has been a cause of concern, but not really a lot of action. At least until now.

Secretary Carey says the blackface scandal surrounding the governor and the attorney general provides an  ideal opportunity to finally do something about this. “Any death at all is unacceptable. So comprehensively reviewing every instance of this and looking for where were those opportunities missed and how do we make sure from a preventive perspective we make sure that every woman has access to those services,” Carey said

Some of this new approach will require money. Other changes might just be a new way of approaching old problems. “To look at social determinants, to look at preventive efforts, to look at trauma informed care and invest on a statewide basis in those services that will lead to the outcomes that we need in order to break down those racial disparities,” Carey explained

The racial disparity in Virginia’s maternal mortality rate was used as an argument for expanding Medicaid, allowing more low-income women to get health care. But administration officials didn’t really have it on their policy agenda the way they do now.

“It’s been pretty perplexing that we have not given it attention before,” said Delegate Delores McQuinn of Richmond, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus. “This is something that we should be able to fix in 2019. Women should not be dying as a result of childbirth. This gives you the sense that we are in the early 1900s,” she added.

Cabinet officials are also proposing other policy goals to address disparity in the wake of the blackface scandal, including decriminalizing marijuana possession and allowing people who owe court fees to keep their driver’s licenses.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.