Florida legislators open dialogue on maternal health, disparities, and stigma ahead of 2022 session


Nicole Pasia


Florida legislators are discussing potential actions to help reduce maternal mortality in the state, as well as racial and socio-economic disparities within those numbers. The Florida Professions and Public Health Subcommittee met last week to hear from child and maternal health experts about the current infant mortality rates in the state and potential solutions that would result in better health outcomes. 


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Shay Chapman, a representative from the Department of Health (DOH) reported that in 2020, Florida’s infant mortality rate was 5.8%, or 1,213 deaths. Within that figure are racial disparities. Chapman said the infant mortality rates among non-Hispanic Black communities are double that of Hispanic communities and non-Hispanic white communities.

When committee members asked for specific factors that exacerbate infant health disparities among certain communities, Chapman pointed out unclear results from the data.

“With national research not showing an exact cause of infant mortality that we can pinpoint on some of these cases or why some are higher rates in certain races, then a lot of it is just looking at what is there and not really being able to draw those lines.”

Cathy Timuta, CEO of the Healthy Start Coalition (HSC), provided committee members with insight on the organization’s boots-on-the-ground approach to maternal and infant care. HSC’s interconception care model places the birthing family at the center of care decisions, Timuta said. 

HSC provides several wraparound services. Its Fetal Infant Mortality Review Committee studies potential mortality drivers and conducts outreach within underserved communities, such as pregnant incarcerated people. HSC also has a Plan of Safe Care, which incorporates social determinants of health such as housing and nutrition into maternal and infant care plans.

HSC also provides home-visiting services, which can help pregnant people and their families feel more comfortable and trusting towards receiving care. Timuta said the family’s participation is voluntary.

“The key to impacting birth outcomes is the longer-term relationship built with the family during the prenatal period and through at least the child’s first birthday.”

Jane Murphy, who operates an HSC branch in Hillsborough County, commended the legislature’s decision to expand postpartum Medicaid eligibility in June 2021. 

“One of the best things that you all have ever done, in my opinion, is extending Medicaid for pregnant women [up] to one year. That is going to reduce barriers and give them care for themselves, their medical care, and often give them opportunities for family planning and access, which they may not have ever had access [to] before.”

The health experts’ presentations inspired further discussion among committee members, particularly former Planned Parenthood Director Rep. Anna Eskamani (D – Orlando), who questioned how harm reduction services for vulnerable communities intersect with maternal care.

“Is there ever a fear for parents [and] mothers to participate —  because they are navigating addiction and they don’t want to be incarcerated — by working with an agency that also  intersects with the government?”

Murphy said one example of integrated harm reduction care at HSC is that a pediatrician can visit a substance use disorder treatment center to meet with a pregnant person who needs care. Once the child is born, the parent could continue to see the same pediatrician, which “breaks those barriers and stigma” between harm reduction and seeking care, according to Murphy.

Although the next meeting time has not been specified, subcommittee Chair Rep. Will Robinson (R – Manatee) said the group will continue to take an in-depth look at issues surrounding maternal and infant health. 

“We will be tackling important issues this session and I look forward to working with each of you to pass legislation that improves the health and well-being of all Floridians.”