The Crisis We’re Not Talking About

November 7, 2017
By Kendra Allen

Recently, it seems like the District government has grabbed hold of the idea of family (see #DCValues) and fashioned it into a multi-cultural, all-inclusive, three starred and two-striped blanket that covers all of us. Yet, many black and brown bodies are still left exposed.

In the past few months, three different decisions have drastically changed the lives of pregnant low-income, predominantly black and brown women in the District.

They include:

  • United Medical Center, the only full-service hospital located east of the Anacostia river being forced to close its maternity care ward for ninety days amid concerns that staff weren’t taking proper care of patients.
  • Medstar Washington Hospital Center changing to a different insurance plan, which only accepts one Medicaid health plan (out of three).
  • Providence Hospital, located in ward 5, closing its maternity ward in October.

Together, these decisions have left a gap in healthcare services for the pregnant women that utilized these hospitals, and now they have limited or no access to maternal care options near them.

While some can, and most likely will, go to a community clinic for their needs, this isn’t an option for everyone. Some families will have to travel further into the District’s center, on public transportation that recently hiked its fares and is sometimes unreliable, to hospitals that may not accept their insurance or be culturally competent. Furthermore, what will happen to these mothers after the child has arrived?

The District is in the middle of a baby boom and has been focused on increasing its childcare capacity and making it affordable and the implementation and funding of the paid family leave. These are all important for stabilizing a family, and I do not want the District to stop working on any of them or for the media to stop following these stories. I just want us to be as concerned about the black and brown babies not yet delivered and their mothers who have a right to healthcare.

False narratives about black and brown women has pervaded much of our society and increased apathy towards this population. The stress from having to live in a society whose dominant narratives promote their dehumanization and having to interact with systems whose policies and practices work to exclude people of color is making them sick. According to Arline Geronimus, a sociologist at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, black women’s reproductive systems age faster due to racism and poor economic conditions, so having maternal care becomes even more essential.

Six outlets, including Colorlines (a national organization), WJLA, Popville, the Washington Business Journal, the Washington Post, and WAMU have covered the closings and four of them have named it a crisis. With an infant mortality rate of 12.5 in ward 8, 10.7 in ward 5 and 9.6 in ward 7, in addition to a high maternal mortality rate overall, it’s not hard to understand why some would call this a “maternal healthcare crisis.”

Solving this problem will take more than re-opening these maternity wards with better service or making alternative maternal care options accessible to these communities. It will take the District not only valuing the lives of black and brown women living in its low-income areas but also taking steps to ensure their practices and policies reflect that sentiment. This is racial equity. The city can start by asking why these women have to travel outside of their community for care, how they can ensure all care is culturally competent and how three seemingly unrelated decisions were able to strip resources from two major populations.

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