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For the first time, a statewide report detailing the latest data on how many Texans die as a result of pregnancy or birth complications won’t be ready before the Texas Legislature next year.
The delay in the state’s maternal mortality report — what would have been the fourth since 2014 — was first revealed two weeks ago by Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health, during a meeting of the State Maternal Mortality Commission.
“I have directed the commission to delay publication of the report until it has completed its review of the 2019 cohort,” Hellerstedt wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, warning him of the delay. “Reviewing and publishing a full year’s worth of data is standard practice in public health and will allow state leadership and the public to have the most complete picture of maternal mortality in Texas.”
The announcement means more delays in dealing with what has been an ongoing problem in Texas. While Texas has fewer than 200 pregnancy-related deaths per year, black women are more affected than any other demographic.
For nearly a decade, the state has been trying to pinpoint both the causes and solutions to maternal mortality in Texas. Because of the pandemic, there were additional delays in getting the most recent data — from 2019 — completed in time for the Texas Legislature in 2023.
State lawmakers from both parties criticized news of the data delay, which was first reported by the Houston Chronicle.
“This delay is a disappointing disappointment and comes at a time when Texas needs to support mothers and families more than ever,” House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement. “The Texas House prioritized our mothers and children during the 2021 legislative session through our chamber’s Healthy Families, Healthy Texas legislative health care package, and will undoubtedly do so again when the Legislature reconvenes.”
State Rep. Sean Thierry, D-Houston, said these data are critical to determining how to improve pregnancy-related deaths in the state.
“Texas expectant mothers and babies cannot afford to wait,” she said. “We need the mortality/incidence data published as if our lives depended on it, because they do.”
State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, said on Twitter that the delay was politically motivated because the data would be available after the November election.
“So Democrats say banning abortion will kill more women in Texas…state that leads in maternal mortality,” Crockett tweeted. “And what’s Texas doing?” They somehow miss the number of maternal deaths because the facts can hurt them in the interim.”
“This has nothing to do with the election,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Department of State Health Services.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 700 women die in the US each year from pregnancy or childbirth complications.
In 2013, the Texas Legislature created the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force, which became the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee. They began meeting the following year in an effort to reduce the number of women dying from pregnancy-related deaths.
From 2012-15, at least 382 pregnant women and women in labor died in Texas from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the most recent data available from the Department of State Health Services.
Texas accounts for about 10 percent of all births in the United States, about 400,000 a year, according to the University of Texas System’s Office of Health Affairs. Nationally and in Texas, maternal mortality rates are higher among women of color, especially black women.
Severe maternal morbidity has affected more than 50,000 women in the United States, or about 14.4 per 1,000 births. In 2015, the most recent data available, the severe maternal morbidity rate in Texas was 18.4 per 1,000 births, according to the 2020 state report, which was prepared before the 2021 legislative session.
But there’s no easy way to arrive at those numbers, which are pulled from a variety of sources, including hospitals, Medicaid and death certificates.
Texas is unlike any other state in its data collection because it must take the extra step of redacting all maternal mortality records before they are reviewed by those collecting the data. This is a quirk of existing state law. An amendment was introduced in a previous legislative session but failed to pass, which means collecting data on this type of data is even more difficult, according to the state health agency.
“There are definitely barriers and issues that make it take a long time and especially in Texas,” Van Deusen said. “We’re the only state where records have to be redacted.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas System is a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in Tribune journalism. Find a full list of them here.
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