Gov. Paul LePage has signed a bill into law that will allow a panel to better understand the reasons behind infant deaths in Maine, at a time when long-term trends show the state’s infant mortality rate has been rising.

LePage signed LD 1112, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, on Wednesday, June 14, following reporting last summer by the BDN’s Maine Focus team that found Maine was the only state to see a long-term increase in its infant mortality rate over the past two decades. Only Maine had a higher infant mortality rate on average between 2005 and 2014 than in the previous decade, from 1995 to 2004.

But the Maine Maternal, Fetal and Infant Mortality Review Panelcharged by law with pinpointing the strengths and weaknesses of the current health care delivery system and make recommendations to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to decrease the rate of maternal and infant deaths — had been largely unable to do its work, the BDN found.

That’s because neither the panel nor its coordinator had automatic access to the relevant medical records. The state health officer within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention had to request them in writing through a letter to the family of the deceased infant or mother, and the health officer couldn’t send that letter until four months after an infant or mother’s death.

Until late March, the group went nearly three years without meeting.

The new law will allow the panel’s coordinator to review medical records related to the case of an infant or mother dying without first having to seek the family’s permission, which puts Maine’s law more in line with those of other states.

The panel will review the deaths of all women during pregnancy or within 42 days of giving birth, the majority of deaths of infants under 1 year of age, and the majority of fetal deaths after 28 weeks of gestation. The new law requires the panel to meet at least twice per year.

The Maine Senate debated the bill June 12 before voting 27-6 to give it final approval. The bill passed the House without objection after earning the unanimous approval of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, voted against it for privacy protection reasons, saying that obtaining “access to health information and medical records without the individual’s or the family’s consent” would give “too much power to a government official.”

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, responded by pointing out that the official with access to the medical records must have a medical license, and the full panel would not see the personal information. The panel members are mostly medical professionals as well.

“Any data that’s shared beyond that person is depersonalized, de-identified. So the personal details connected to any individual goes no further than that medical professional,” he said.

Before voting in favor of the bill, Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, described his family’s own loss of an infant who was stillborn. “If you’ve gone through that loss you look for answers. This is a place that you can get some,” he said.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News.

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...