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The future of a committee to study Idaho's maternal deaths is uncertain

A silhouette of a pregnant person's stomach and hand on top.
Manuel Alejandro Leon

The future of a task force set up to study maternal mortality in Idaho is not certain after House lawmakers voted to hold a bill in committee Thursday.

For three years, a group of Idaho doctors, social workers, coroners and others in health care analyzed each case where a person died during pregnancy or within a year after.

All 26 deaths documented over those three years were found to be preventable, according to the annual reports produced.

“There is a possibility for us to alter the outcome for some other mom in the future if we know what’s going on, so we can create targeted, specific, local interventions relative to our state,” said Dr. Amelia Huntsberger, an OB/GYN based in Sandpoint, who serves on the Maternal Mortality Review Committee.

The committee is housed under the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and federal grant dollars cover its costs. According to the latest data presented at the end of last year, 11 people in Idaho died while pregnant or within a year of pregnancy in 2020, up from five the year before.

When the Maternal Mortality Review Committee was set up by the legislature in 2019, Idaho was among the last states with no committee to study maternal deaths and make recommendations for their prevention. The U.S.’s maternal mortality rate exceeds other high-income countries.

The committee’s work was scheduled to sunset this year. A bill to remove the end date, introduced by Rep. Dori Healey (R-Boise), was held in the House Health and Welfare committee Thursday.

The previous day, it received support from those in health care, plus the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, but scrutiny from lawmakers, with some saying the committee had served its purpose and questioning why Idaho-specific data is important.

Fred Birnbaum of the far-right lobbying group, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said the task force is not necessary.

“I mean, you don't really need a committee to say some of these things,” he said.

Some of the recommendations from the committee’s studies included expanding postpartum Medicaid coverage, better educating physicians and increasing services for substance abuse, a common factor in the deaths.

Elke Shaw-Tulloch, the public health division administrator for IDHW, highlighted a new perinatal quality collaborative to improve the care of mothers and babies and legislation that could expand Medicaid coverage to a year postpartum as actions building on the committee's recommendations.

After tabling discussion Wednesday, lawmakers quickly voted to hold the bill in committee on Thursday, with Chairman Rep. John Vander Woude (R-Nampa) suggesting Healey had decided to pull the bill “due to the lack of good information.”

Though federal funds for the committee are sufficient, IDHW spokesperson Greg Stahl said in an email that the legislation provides “legal clarity and assurance that the records the committee shares and reviews will be kept confidential, that data can be shared and that there will be protections for MMRC members and participants.”

Healey did not respond to a question Wednesday about whether she would try to bring another bill forward this session to prevent the sunsetting of the committee. Stahl said the department is not aware of another bill at this time.

Editor's note: The point that all deaths the committee reviewed were deemed to be preventable was incorrectly attributed to Dr. Huntsberger.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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