Texas health officials have missed a key window to complete the state’s first major updated count of pregnancy related deaths in nearly a decade, saying the findings will now be released next summer, most likely after the Legislature’s biennial session.
The delay, disclosed earlier this month by the Department of State Health Services, means lawmakers won’t likely be able to use the analysis, covering deaths from 2019, until the 2025 legislative cycle. The most recent state-level data available is nine years old.
In a hearing this month with the state’s Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee, DSHS commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said the agency wanted to better align its methodology with that of other states, and that there hadn’t been enough staff and money to finish the review for a scheduled Sept. 1 release.
“The information we provide is not easily understood, and not easily and readily comparable to what goes on in other states,” Hellerstedt told the committee. “And the fact it isn’t easily understood or easily comparable in my mind leaves room for a great deal of misunderstanding about what the data really means.”
In a statement, DSHS spokesman Chris Van Deusen said the agency is reviewing its “internal processes” to try to develop more timely data.
“I expect we’ll be having conversations with legislators about what could be done to speed up the lengthy review process,” he said.
The setback comes four months before the start of the legislative session and two months before the midterm election, which has been dominated in part by the state’s new Republican-led abortion ban. Those restrictions have placed more scrutiny on the state’s maternal mortality rate, which is among the 10 highest in the country, according to national estimates that track pregnancy-related complications while pregnant or within a year of giving birth.
“There are a lot of us that want to know whether or not pregnancy in Texas is a death sentence,” said state Rep. Ann Johnson, a Houston Democrat and member of the Texas Women’s Health Caucus. “If we’ve got a higher rate of maternal mortality, we sure want to figure it out. You can’t figure it out if somebody’s sitting on the numbers, and that’s my worry.”
Like in other states, maternal outcomes in Texas are worse for Black women, who have died at about three times the rate of non-black women. This year’s findings were expected to drill further into the causes behind those disparities.
Rep. Shawn Thierry, a Houston Democrat who has described going through her own dangerous birthing experience, said the data is critical for understanding the role cesarean sections play in maternal deaths and whether implicit bias is playing a factor in the quality of maternal care for Black women.
“There is so much to unpack from the data,” Thierry said, adding that “no woman who chooses life should have to do so in exchange for their own.”
Members of the state’s maternal mortality committee, which compiles the official report, said they were disappointed by the decision to hold the preliminary findings.
“(We) do the work to honor the lives of women who lost their lives, and families that are forever impacted by the loss of a mother,” said Dr. Carla Ortique, the committee chair. “So there’s disappointment on both fronts: that we’re not honoring those women and families, and that we may be negatively impacting efforts to improve maternal health outcomes in our state.”