BERRY (copy)

Micaela Berry, doula, (left) meets with Tamela Frailin and her daughter, Brooklyn, 11 months, in this file photo from March 20, 2017.

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As Wisconsin continues to rank among the worst states in the nation for maternal and child health disparities, a new set of bills aims to expand access to health care and resources for mothers and children of color.

According to state data, Black infants in Wisconsin die at more than three times the rate of white infants, and Black mothers experience a pregnancy-related mortality rate five times higher than that of white mothers. Federal data also show that infant and maternal mortality rates for Indigenous and Hispanic women outpace those of their white counterparts.

Wisconsin’s stark racial disparities in maternal and infant health can be measured for at least three decades.

“There’s no reason that a baby’s lifespan should be decreased by the time that they’re born simply because of their ZIP code, the color of their skin or their economic status,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, during a news conference announcing the legislation. “That has to stop.”

The bills included in the “Wisconsin Birth Equity Act” would:

  • Provide an at-home wellness visit within the first seven days of delivery, if requested.

  • Mandate insurance coverage of maternal mental health risk screenings.

  • Repeal the state’s birth cost recovery law, which allows the state to pursue payment for birthing costs from unmarried fathers 

  • Establish pregnancy as a qualifying event for employer-sponsored health plans

  • Repeal the state’s sales tax on breastfeeding equipment and supplies

  • Expand access to dental care for pregnant mothers covered by BadgerCare

“The condition of Black maternal and child health in Wisconsin right now is best described as a state of emergency, one that has been met with too little urgency or effective solutions for action, despite the best efforts of organizations and advocates like many of us gathered here today,” said Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder and president of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness.

Several proposals by Gov. Tony Evers to fund efforts to reduce women’s health disparities and infant mortality were stripped by Republican lawmakers from the two state budgets he has introduced while in office.

A proposal in Evers’ most recent budget to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from one month to one year was modified by Republicans to instead extend coverage to three months. Proposals to allocate Medicaid funding for doulas and grant funding for community organizations aimed at improving the health of Black women and babies were removed.

“It’s racism, not just race, that's killing Black and Indigenous people of color’s moms and babies. The reality is that Wisconsin's disparities and inequities in maternal and child health are rooted in systems that are underpinned by racism and bias. And those systems don't operate in silos,” said Tamara Thompson, a doula, lactation counselor and student midwife with Maroon Calabash. “Black and Indigenous moms, and people of color, mothers, our babies are dying at intersections of inadequate housing, environmental injustice, food insecurity, violence, trauma, mental health, and the lived experience of what it is like to be Black, Indigenous or a person of color in the United States. Our systems have been created about us, but not by us.”

The policies included in the package are “not the end-all, be-all solution to our state’s disparate outcomes in maternal and child health,” said Katrina Morrison, health equity director for the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health — but it is a starting point.

“The future of countless Black babies in Wisconsin is at risk,” said Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison.

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