Gov. Josh Shapiro and Pennsylvania lawmakers celebrate signing of maternal health law

Gov. Josh Shapiro joins lawmakers for a ceremonial signing of legislation meant to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality rates in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and state lawmakers on Tuesday celebrated the ceremonial signing of legislation that officials said will lead to better data on maternal morbidity and improved health outcomes and policy for pregnant people in the commonwealth.

“I’m proud that we are united in taking action to protect women’s health and begin our work to address disparities in maternal mortality that have existed for far too long and have often times been ignored,” Shapiro, a Democrat, said at the ceremony in Harrisburg.

Act 5, previously known as Senate Bill 262, amends the Maternal Mortality Review Act to require the state Department of Health to annually publish maternal morbidity data using hospital discharge information. That data will then be included in the Pennsylvania Maternal Mortality Review Committee’s annual report to the General Assembly, health care providers, and the public. Shapiro signed the original bill into law in July.

More complete and timely data about maternal morbidity will allow lawmakers to craft better maternal health policy and should lead to decreased morbidity and mortality rates among pregnant and postpartum people in Pennsylvania, elected officials said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines maternal morbidity as “unexpected outcomes of labor and delivery that result in significant short- or long-term consequences to a woman’s health.” Examples of maternal morbidity include diabetes, high blood pressure, blood clots, and depression.

“Without regular reporting and data documenting cases of maternal morbidity in the commonwealth, we don’t know the scale of the problem or the critical indicators,” Democratic Sen. Judy Schwank, a member of the Pennsylvania Women’s Health Caucus, said during Tuesday’s ceremony.

“Without this information, it’s much more difficult to craft effective policy addressing this crisis,” continued Schwank, who introduced Senate Bill 262. The bill unanimously passed the Democratic-led House and the Republican-led Senate.

The legislation comes as state officials are working to address a rise in dangerous medical conditions pregnant individuals experience. The Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council in August released a report that documented an increase in the state’s rate of severe maternal morbidity of 40% between 2016 and 2022. Among the most common cases of maternal morbidity were acute kidney failure and blood clots.

The rates were higher for Black and low-income Pennsylvanians. Severe maternal morbidity rates among Black patients increased by 51% between 2016 and 2022. Meanwhile, patients from zip codes with poverty rates greater than 25% saw a 61% increase in maternal morbidity during that same period.

Rep. Morgan Cephas, a Democrat, said state lawmakers have been diligently working to address concerns around maternal health and pointed to the creation of the recently formed Black Maternal Health Caucus and a state budget that includes $2.3 million allocated for maternal health programming.

“As much progress as we have made, we know that we are not out of the woods with this issue,” Cephas said. “I will forever know that the passage of this bill will not save the life of those that we have already lost, like my own constituent, La’Shana Gilmore, who at the time was 34, lost her life after giving birth to her now 4-year-old daughter Royal.”

Health officials in Shapiro’s administration said they are committed to addressing the racial disparities in the state’s health care system.

“Access to maternal health care is not equitable in Pennsylvania, with both urban and rural communities experiencing gaps, including in Philadelphia where Black women represent 43% of the births but account for 73% of the maternal deaths,” state Department of Human Services Secretary Dr. Val Arkoosh said in a press release