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Idaho considers ways to continue studying maternal health after committee sunsets

A pregnant person's stomach
Sergio Santo
The state health department still wants to collect data on pregnancy-related deaths, but it won't have access to the same information without the maternal mortality review committee.

As a committee to study maternal deaths in Idaho is nearing its conclusion at the end of June, state health officials are considering ways to keep some data collection going.

The Maternal Mortality Review Committee (MMRC) was established by the state legislature in 2019 and is made up of a volunteer group of doctors, social workers, coroners, emergency personnel and others who analyze each case in which a person died during pregnancy or within a year after.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, 49 states have an MMRC and Wyoming’s maternal deaths are analyzed by a shared committee with Utah.

State lawmakers declined to pass a bill that would have prevented the Idaho group’s sunsetting. Some felt the committee’s conclusions in its annual reports were redundant; others questioned why Idaho needed its own data on the topic.

The far-right lobbying group Idaho Freedom Foundation celebrated the end of the maternal mortality review committee, arguing its recommendations would have led to the expansion of government.

A bill to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage in Idaho, one of the MMRC’s recommendations, did not receive a hearing this past session.

Without the legislation to extend the MMRC in Idaho, the committee isn’t authorized to do its research and produce its reports, said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, the public health administrator at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

The law establishing the committee gave members legal protection to review confidential case information and the authority to compel the release of health and law enforcement records from different agencies.

As a hypothetical example, Shaw-Tulloch said if the MMRC noticed a pocket of maternal deaths in a certain area due to drug overdoses, it could examine access to treatment services in that area.

Without the committee, the state will still have access to the number of maternal deaths if a death certificate indicates a person was pregnant when they died. But, it will no longer have the information to inform what might have caused their death.

Reviewing those specific details allowed the MMRC to say all 26 deaths it looked at in three years were likely preventable and to make recommendations to prevent more deaths.

“Absent the statute, or the enabling legislation, the committee can’t function in the same way,” Shaw-Tulloch said.

In addition to Idaho's abortion laws, the end of the MMRC was a reason Dr. Amelia Huntsberger, an OB-GYN, cited for leaving Idaho.

Shaw-Tulloch said the committee is wrapping up one more report based on 2021 data before it stops meeting. The analysis isn’t final, but she said it shows maternal deaths in Idaho continuing to increase.

Going forward, the state plans on publishing the data on maternal deaths it has access to on its Get Healthy Idaho platform. Shaw-Tulloch said conversations are also ongoing as to whether the Idaho Hospital Association or Idaho Medical Association could contribute data on maternal deaths.

In the meantime, the state is forming its first Perinatal Quality Collaborative, which has a goal of reducing poor maternal and infant outcomes. Task forces in other states have worked to get more timely treatment for pregnant patients with severe high blood pressure, for example. But in Idaho, the collaborative won’t be able to rely on data from an MMRC.

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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