Attorney General Andrea Campbell Tuesday announced $1.5 million in grants to 11 organizations that provide maternal care in Massachusetts as part of her office’s efforts to combat rising maternal health inequities in the state.
“The goal was to reach organizations doing the real work and reach patients in real time,” Campbell said at an event hosted by the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, one of the grant recipients. “As much as we’re making progress, when it comes to racial disparities we still have work to do.”
Campbell hosted the recipients of the Maternal Health Equity Grant for a roundtable discussion about how to reduce negative pregnancy and postpartum outcomes across the state, particularly for Black women, who continue to face the highest rates of pregnancy complications and deaths. First announced by Campbell’s office in April, the grant aims to reduce these racial and ethnic inequities by increasing access to prenatal care, behavioral health support, and breastfeeding support that meets the needs of the state’s diverse population.
Grantees spoke with urgency about the need to recruit a more diverse workforce, increase access to doula care, and provide more transportation support for pregnant people to reach appointments.
The Whittier Street Health Center, which serves a large population of low-income individuals and immigrants who receive services in languages other than English, will use the funding to hire bilingual staff and conduct community outreach initiatives to better serve those at highest risk of receiving poor maternal care.
As the state continues to see an influx of new arrivals, it’s more important than ever to fund the organizations that have built trust among diverse communities and understand their unique needs and concerns, said Frederica Williams, Whittier’s president and CEO. Worries about legal status among pregnant patients can deter them from seeking prenatal care and put them at risk for worse outcomes.
“[It’s] the unspoken secret: documentation,” she said. “Patients are living in the shadows and entering maternal health in their third trimester because they are afraid.”
The grant also aims to increase access to care from doulas, non-medical professionals trained to offer emotional and informational support to families during and after pregnancy, and support a more robust and diverse workforce. Doula care has been shown to improve maternal outcomes, particularly among women of color, but their services are not covered by insurance, which makes them financially inaccessible to many.
That may soon change as MassHealth explores expanding benefits to cover doula services. In preparation for the expected change, Tufts University’s Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice will use its new grant funding to create an interactive toolkit to help doulas navigate pay and support MassHealth members looking to connect with doulas.
Cambridge Health Alliance, which started the state’s first hospital doula program in 1996, saw a major reduction in its doula workforce during the pandemic; now, only 17 percent of patients are able to work with doulas, according to Dr. Melissa Ethier, its director of labor and delivery. With its grant funding, CHA will expand its team of doulas, working to recruit more from multicultural communities and train them to lead new childbirth and postpartum classes adapted to the cultural needs of their patients.
When Campbell asked at the roundtable what more needed to be done to support pregnant people and their families, many organizations pointed to a need for transportation access to help patients get to medical appointments.
Dr. Guy L. Fish, CEO of the Lawrence Community Health Center, said his center has a 30 percent no-show rate for appointments, largely due to a lack of transportation and child care, particularly among female patients. He noted that pregnant people often visit their providers 10 or more times during and after pregnancy, which can come at large financial cost to those without reliable and cheap modes of transport.
He estimates that the city of Lawrence would require a quarter of a million dollars to ensure transportation to maternal services for the 600 births they see per year. “We’re not talking about millions, we’re talking about something fairly small to help women access their appointments,” he said.
The money to support the grants comes from settlements reached by the attorney general’s office, including in cases brought against pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers, according to a spokesperson for Campbell.
Other grantees include the Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, which provides donor milk to premature babies in hospital NICUs, Cape Cod Children’s Place, and Hampden County’s Caring Health Center.
Campbell said she hoped the grant would allow the organizations to create connections and support one another.
“The conversation today stressed a few things,” she said. “We have no time to waste...[and] there is a community of folks across the state that are doing remarkable work.”