Vice President Kamala Harris, right, speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, April 13, 2022, on the Biden administration's whole-of-government approach to addressing maternal mortality and morbidity. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra listens at left. Credit: Susan Walsh / AP

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The maternal mortality rate – the rate at which mothers die in the months after giving birth – is much higher in the United States than in other developed countries. The lack of comprehensive paid leave for new parents and inconsistent follow-up health care for new mothers are two major reasons for this disparity, according to a 2020 report from the Commonwealth Fund.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills took an important step to support new mothers last month when she announced that the state would extend MaineCare maternal health coverage from 60 days to a full year. This means that the roughly 40 percent of new mothers in Maine covered by the public insurance plan will have access to follow-up health care, mental health care, family planning and support for caring for their newborn children. The extension is largely funded by the federal government, which recently approved an amendment to the state’s Medicaid plan.

Mills announced this change before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year-old decision that said women had a constitutional right to abortion. Although abortion rights are protected in Maine under current law and leadership, many other states have or plan to tightly restrict abortions, which will cause more women to give birth, whether they want to or not.

This ruling heightens the need for better policies, across the country, to help and support new parents.

“Extending support for mothers not only promotes healthy outcomes but saves taxpayer dollars by supporting preventive care during this critical year,” Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, said in a June 16 press release from the governor’s office. “This builds on Maine’s successful policy of providing one year of continuous coverage to children on MaineCare.”

Maine joins Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, Virginia, New Jersey, Illinois, California, New Mexico, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia in extending maternal care coverage under their respective state Medicaid programs f

“Improving access to high-quality postpartum care is one of the most important investments we can make in the health of our families,” U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said in the same press release. “Gov. Mills’ decision to expand Medicaid postpartum health care coverage to 12 months after birth will give thousands of mothers the support they deserve at a vulnerable time and make a huge difference in Maine’s rural and low-income communities.”

Maternal mortality rates have been on the rise in the U.S. and they are much higher for Black and Indigenous mothers than their white counterparts. Because Maine has few childbirths – and therefore, thankfully, few maternal deaths – each year, the data is too sparse to be accurately measured. But that doesn’t mean new mothers in Maine don’t need more postpartum care.

Pregnant women in America were twice as likely to die during pregnancy or after childbirth than women in France in 2018, according to the Commonwealth Fund report. American maternal mortality rates are more than four times higher than in Sweden, and 10 times higher than in New Zealand.

One third of these deaths were during pregnancy and 57 percent were within six weeks of delivery. Twelve percent were within the year after delivery. The majority of these deaths are considered preventable with better care.

In addition, the U.S. was the only country in the study that did not require paid leave for new mothers. Switzerland mandates 14 weeks, Norway 91 weeks.

“Maternity leave helps women manage the physiological and psychological demands of motherhood and helps ensure financial security for families,” the report said.

The Supreme Court has put mothers in the spotlight, and the evidence shows that, generally, new mothers don’t get the medical support and time away from work that they need to recover from pregnancy and birth. Gov. Mills has taken an important step to help many new mothers in Maine get the care they need.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...