Last year, maternity wards were shuttered at two DC hospitals — United Medical Center near Washington Highlands and Congress Heights and Providence Hospital in Michigan Park, both of which predominantly served low-income women of color. A third hospital, Medstar Washington Hospital Center, lost its contract to operate its own Medicaid managed-care organization, putting care out of reach for even more women and forcing some to travel long distances.
The result of these closures is a maternal care desert for women who live east of the Anacostia, who now have to trek half an hour by car or more (and longer by transit) to access a maternity ward and prenatal care. A new seven-minute documentary from The Atlantic highlights the deadly, discriminatory consequences of these closures.
Maternity ward closures are exacerbating an existing crisis
DC, according to the CDC, has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country. The US is the only developed country where maternal mortality rates are climbing, and black women experience particularly high rates of both maternal and infant mortality.
Black women are three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women, and are three times more likely to lose their infants, even when controlling for income, health status, and educational attainment. Researchers have determined that stress from everyday racism is a cause of high infant mortality among black women.
To try to reverse these trends, the DC Council recently approved legislation to create a Maternal Mortality Review Committee to study the issue, and councilmembers are demanding answers from United Medical over their maternity ward closure.
Meanwhile, community providers like Mamoto Village are working to provide maternal care and doula support east of the Anacostia. One solution currently being employed is the use of birth centers, such as the Community of Hope Birth Center, which provide prenatal care and an alternative to giving birth in a maternity ward.
While birth centers are a good option for some women, they cannot provide c-sections, emergency care, or deliver high-risk pregnancies. Without access to maternity wards that accept Medicaid and prenatal care close by, women of color are left with another horrific consequence of DC’s history of segregation that puts their lives and their children’s lives in danger.
Watch below to see how DC’s maternity ward closures are forcing women who live east of the Anacostia to travel half an hour by car or more than an hour by public transportation to access maternal care: