Arkansas agencies pursue initiatives to improve state maternal health • Arkansas Advocate

Arkansas officials are collaborating on events and initiatives to fill gaps in women’s health care services in response to the governor’s directive to improve maternal health.

Arkansas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the nation and the third highest infant mortality rate, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. Black mothers are more at risk and are twice as likely as their white counterparts to die, according to a 2023 Legislative Report.

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order earlier this month that created a committee tasked with increasing access to quality maternal health services as well as improving education; maternal health before, during and after pregnancy; and nationwide coordination of maternal health data and reporting.

State officials told the Legislature’s Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee Friday that their pursuit of these goals includes a stakeholder meeting on April 22 and a women’s health event at the Arkansas Capitol on May 2, where attendees can access screenings and health resources.

They also reiterated plans to launch a pilot program in five counties with high rates of pregnant Arkansans not receiving maternal health care: Crittenden, Garland, Phillips, Polk and Scott.

Arkansas governor authorizes committee, strategic plan aimed at strengthening maternal health

Cassie Cochran, deputy director for public health programs, said they will review the processes and services of the clinics in these counties to better harmonize the services that can be provided in the Local Health Units.

All 75 counties in the state have at least one Local Health Unit operated by the Arkansas Department of Health, where people can seek health care services such as immunizations and testing for communicable diseases.

Cochran said they also plan to bring together community stakeholders to review the services available locally and discuss how to best connect them to cover the entire spectrum of women’s health.

Arkansas Health Secretary Renee Mallory said a major contributing factor to the state’s high maternal mortality rate is women starting their pregnancies unhealthy because of chronic conditions.

“Changing this dynamic is difficult. We’re not a healthy state,” Mallory said. “So it’s like, what can we do that can move the needle a little bit faster and actually help these moms have healthy babies?”

Mallory said one thing being considered is placing an Arkansas Department of Human Services representative at the Local Health Units who can help women apply for Medicaid. DHS Secretary Kristi Putnam said more than half of Arkansas babies born each year are on Medicaid.

Sanders’ executive order directs state agencies to work immediately to enroll all eligible Arkansans in existing health insurance programs that cover pregnancy and postpartum care, including Medicaid programs. The governor came under fire last month after saying she didn’t believe expanding Medicaid’s postpartum coverage from 60 days to 12 months was necessary.

Arkansas is one of three states that did not benefit federal option to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months after birth. A 2023 bill would have expanded that coverage but did not advance in the Legislature because of cost concerns.

The Chairperson of the Public Health Committee, Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said Friday that it’s important to understand the specific nature of Medicaid programs, enrollment times and how to make it “smoother and more efficient.”

“You want to be as effective with the programs that we have, but we also want to make sure that they’re being fully utilized to the best of the program’s capabilities … the biggest thing we need to do better in [is] connecting resources that are already available,” Irvin said.

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