Rep. Underwood Discusses Her Bipartisan Efforts to Improve Maternal Health

The Illinois congresswoman spoke at GW’s Edward M. Brandt Jr. Memorial Lecture in Women’s Health and Health Policy Leadership Series.

Laura Underwood
Rep. Laura Underwood is working to improve maternal mortality rates in the U.S. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
December 09, 2019

By B.L. Wilson

U.S. Rep. Laura Underwood (D-Ill.) said that as a nurse she considered advocating for access to affordable health care fundamental to her job. So after serving as a senior health adviser to President Barack Obama during the implementation the Affordable Care Act (ACA), she returned home to Naperville, Ill., to run for Congress in part to protect the ACA against efforts to dismantle the legislation.

“I saw coverage of people with pre-existing conditions threatened,” Ms. Underwood said. “I saw premiums rising and prescription drug prices skyrocketing and I knew I had to do something because people in my community, the same community where I grew up, deserved better.”

She didn’t know that it also would give her the opportunity to take on what she decribed as one of the biggest health care challenges facing the United States, a high maternal mortality rate.

Each year 700 women in the United States die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world with black women three to four times more likely to die in childbirth, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ms. Underwood was the keynote speaker for the 12th annual Edward M. Brandt Jr. Lecture in Women’s Health sponsored by the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health and the George Washington University School of Nursing Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement. It was held at the Milken Institute School of Public Health Thursday morning.

In introducing Ms. Underwood, School of Nursing Dean Pamela Jeffries noted that the legislator is the first person of color and the first millennial to represent the 14th Congressional District in Illinois and the youngest African American woman to serve in Congress.

In remarks, Ms. Underwood said she has introduced legislation to contain the cost of premiums and the high price of drugs and blocked attempts to remove provisions that protect people with pre-existing conditions, mental health coverage and preventive care from the Affordable Care Act.

She said that she and Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) founded the Black Maternal Health Caucus to improve maternal health outcomes and disparities in maternal mortality among racial and ethnic groups.

Ms. Underwood shared a story about a former classmate at Johns Hopkins University, Shalon Irving, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Public Health Service Corps and epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An accomplished author and world traveler, Ms. Irving died three weeks after giving birth to her daughter.

“A black woman with a college degree is more likely to die from giving birth in this country than a white woman who dropped out of high school,” she said.

The support for the Black Maternal Health Caucus has been overwhelming, she said, even though they only expected a handful of members and advocates when it was announced in April.

“It has already grown to more than 90 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans… all committed to saving the lives of black moms,” Ms., Underwood said.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously passed the Healthy Moms Act (Healthy Maternal and Obstetric Medicine Act) that extends postpartum coverage under Medicaid.  Several pieces of legislation for preventing maternal deaths also have been introduced under what she called the “Momnibus Bill,” a play on words that amused an audience of students and health policy experts.

Ms. Underwood then participated in a discussion that was led by Darla Bishop, a lecturer and doctoral candidate in the GW Department of Health Policy and Management, and Jeanne Murphy, assistant professor of nursing in the faculty community of population, policies and systems.The lecture was followed by a Q & A with Ms. Underwood and Milken SPH Dean Lynn Goldman, who asked Ms. Underwood how she had been able to achieve so much bipartisan support.

Ms. Underwood answered that legislative gridlock could be avoided with conversations and not making assumptions.

“A lot of the members just don’t understand where you’re coming from, they don’t understand the nature of the problem,” she said. “We make a lot of assumptions that because someone might be a Republican from a rural community… about their values, their beliefs and that is the wrong thing to do.

“Everybody understands the need to be able to have care so that we don’t have women bleeding out in communities without any kind of maternal health provider within 20 or 12 miles to care for them,” Ms. Underwood said. “Unfortunately in the United States, that’s a reality.”


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