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Idaho State News

A law meant to save lives of Idaho mothers is on the chopping block. Will lawmakers keep it?

Audrey Dutton | Idaho Capital Sun

A special committee that was created four years ago to study maternal deaths in Idaho will end in July if the Idaho Legislature does not pass a bill to remove or change its sunset date.

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The Maternal Mortality Review Committee is tasked with studying Idaho deaths during pregnancy or within one year of giving birth, and with finding potential solutions that can prevent more deaths.

Idaho Rep. Dori Healey, R-Boise, sponsored a bill that would remove the sunset date, allowing the committee to continue indefinitely. The committee’s budget comes from the federal government; it requires no state funds.

But after an unexpectedly long hearing before the House Health and Welfare Committee this week, Healey decided to pull the legislation.

She told the Idaho Capital Sun on Friday that she is “trying to decide the best path forward” for legislation that would continue the maternal mortality review committee’s work. “It’s not necessarily done yet,” she said.

The committee’s latest report showed a rise in preventable maternal death in 2020.

What happens if Idaho Legislature doesn’t renew Maternal Mortality Review Committee?

If the Idaho Legislature chooses not to renew the Maternal Mortality Review Committee, the law authorizing the work by its members — who are doctors, other health care providers and a coroner — would end in July.

That means the committee would not review or issue any reports on deaths among pregnant women and new mothers in the wake of Idaho’s near-total abortion ban.

Rep. Josh Wheeler, R-Ammon, seemed to reference the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and its effect on reproductive rights in Idaho. He asked Healey if “the change in both the national and the state regulatory environment” since 2019 “would be another reason that this study ought to continue.”

During the hearing, House committee members asked a range of questions of Healey and of the public health and medical professionals who testified. Committee members asked whether the information generated by the MMRC is available through other sources, for example. Healey explained that the MMRC can analyze data available elsewhere; but it is the only entity that creates those analyses.

The committee has special authority to review records — while adhering to privacy laws — and study whether a pregnant or new mother’s death could have been prevented.

Legislators sit in a committee room
 Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, questions Rep. Dori Healey, R-Boise, about the bill. (Idaho In Session)

Legislators asked why it was important for Idaho to review deaths of Idahoans, as opposed to looking at what other states and national studies find.

“Thus far, it’s demonstrated that all deaths were determined to be preventable,” Healey told the Health and Welfare Committee. “The most common underlying causes of death were mental conditions, related to suicide, substance use disorder or overdose.”

Health and Welfare Committee members questioned its necessity.

Rep. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, said he voted in favor of creating the committee back in 2019. But now, after reading the reports it has issued, “they all seem to identify the same thing: substance abuse, mental health. So, I think this has served its purpose,” he said.

Doctors advocate for bill, while Idaho Freedom Foundation opposes it

Dr. Suzanna Hubele of Weiser testified on behalf of the Idaho Academy of Family Physicians. She was one of several doctors to testify in support of the bill.

“As a family medicine doctor practicing (obstetrics) in rural Idaho, I can personally attest to the need for this review and process,” she said. “We had a recent case within the last couple of years, where a young woman, mid-20s, fifth pregnancy, was deemed to be high risk and established care. Unfortunately, she was unable to hook up with high-risk physicians and ultimately ended up delivering somewhere else.”

The woman developed a blood clot in her lungs and was seen by a couple of doctors — in the emergency room and then with her primary care provider. She ultimately ended up back in the hospital and died.

“This is just one case where, if we had had a comprehensive review of all the people involved in the case, we can look back and see if there was anything we could have done to prevent this death,” Hubele said.

Fred Birnbaum, a representative of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, spoke to oppose the bill.

He argued that it was designed to increase government spending and cause more low-income pregnant and postpartum Idahoans to be covered by Medicaid, to ensure they have health care.

Birnbaum suggested that the maternal deaths may not be numerous enough to warrant scrutiny.

Each of the deaths reviewed by the committee “leaves a child without a mother,” Healey said earlier in the hearing.

Birnbaum took issue with that, saying that when Idaho has 22,000 live births, 10 or 11 women dying in pregnancy or shortly after childbirth is “dealing with small numbers.”

Birnbaum also seemingly endorsed the committee’s recommendations to prevent maternal deaths, saying the proposed solutions are “very obvious” and that “you don’t really need a committee to say some of these things.”

The recommendations include expanding postpartum Medicaid coverage, giving pregnant women priority for subsidized housing, increasing social services funding and support, and expanding access to the opioid overdose treatment naloxone.

“Idaho is a state that cares about mothers and babies,” said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, the administrator for the Idaho Division of Public Health. “We want them to receive the best health care from prenatal care through delivery and the postpartum period. The work of the MMRC helps improve these services for Idaho moms and babies but also to (ensure) whole and healthy families.”

Shaw-Tulloch noted that the committee has “no fiscal impact” on the state budget.

Its funding comes from the public health division’s “ongoing, longstanding maternal-child health block grant, which has maximum flexibility for us …”

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