State budget cuts won’t deter Morehouse maternal mortality study

Natalie Hernandez, an assistant professor at Morehouse College School of Medicine, at the school campus Monday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Black women in Georgia are at least three times more likely to die during or after pregnancy than their white counterparts.

It’s an alarming and often cited, but also little understood, statistic.

Morehouse School of Medicine, an historically black college near downtown Atlanta, intends to change that.

“We knew it was multi-leveled and that’s why we had a research corps, a training corps and an engagement corps,” Natalie Hernandez, an assistant professor at Morehouse who teaches community health and preventive medicine, said in an interview Monday.

“Because at this level in our ‘ivory tower,’ we can do all this research but if the community is not engaged, if we’re not allowing black women to be heard and be empowered to be heard, then it’s going to be for nothing,” she said. “Their voices as just as crucial as any physician or any research scientist like myself.”

But the school’s plans to open what it has styled the Center for Excellence on Maternal Mortality, which is envisioned to have a statewide focus, has suffered a setback of late.

A $500,000 grant that was awarded to help start the program has become ensnared in the budget cuts ordered last month by Gov. Brian Kemp. The state Department of Community Health has proposed reneging on the grant in its plan to trim about $25 million from this year’s budget.

“Morehouse School of Medicine is the preeminent academic center for addressing health equity,” Elise Blasingame, executive director at Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia, said in a statement.

“It would be a total loss for Georgia, where our maternal deaths are 3.3 times more likely to be black women, as well as the entire country which is facing a maternal health crisis, should Morehouse not be able to create this Center of Excellence,” she said.

The cut to Morehouse’s aspiring program comes as a group of state lawmakers is set to convene Thursday at the state Capitol for the first of a series of meetings focused on Georgia’s high rates of maternal mortality.

The group’s charge is to develop strategies and institute systemic changes to decrease and prevent maternal deaths in Georgia, according to the measure creating the group.

“The cuts aren’t written in stone yet,” Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican who is co-chairing the study committee, told the Georgia Recorder.

“So there’s always the possibility for change and the budget does go through the legislative process,” she said. “I certainly will be working to get that program put back in.”

Either way, a Morehouse spokeswoman said the school is disappointed but intends to press on.

Ronna Charles, who is the communications director for the school, said Monday that the state funding would certainly boost the school’s efforts, but the partnership with the state was in some ways just as valuable.

“By granting us that $500,000, it was more of a statement about the importance that we feel, and (the governor) feeling that same importance, for the communities that we care about,” Charles said.

Georgia has grappled with high rates of maternal mortality for years. In 2014, lawmakers established a Maternal Mortality Review Committee that studies individual cases and synthesizes the conclusions into a report. But the work is tedious and reports slow to materialize, with the 2019 report covering the 2012-2014 timeframe.

Of the deaths reviewed, 40% were found to be related to the woman’s pregnancy, meaning her death was not the result of a car wreck or some other unrelated cause. Many of the deaths happened just after the woman gave birth, or during what’s known as the “fourth trimester.”

The committee also concluded that 60% of the pregnancy-related deaths were preventable. The leading cause of death was cardiomyopathy. Other common causes of death include hemorrhage and cardiovascular and coronary conditions.

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