Health Care

Missouri among worst for infant and maternal death. Governor calls for bipartisan fix

Missouri has one of the nation’s worst rates of maternal mortality and is among the bottom half of states in infant mortality.

Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, said Thursday in Kansas City that he’s willing to work with Democrats to fix those problems.

“If there’s anything we can do to help with the situation, if it’s a piece of legislation, I don’t care who introduces it,” Parson said. “If it’s something that’s really good and really has some benefits, then I’m open to that. It will be on the table and we’ll take a look at it.”

Parson’s tone marked a potential departure from the last legislative session, when a maternal mortality bill introduced by Rep. Sarah Unsicker, a St. Louis Democrat, didn’t even get a hearing. Unsicker said she thought it was ignored because she wasn’t in the majority party, but she planned to introduce it again in 2019.

Parson was speaking at a press conference at Truman Medical Center, a safety net hospital where, each year, nearly half of Kansas City’s babies are born.

He was flanked by Mayor Sly James, Truman President and CEO Charlie Shields, three cabinet secretaries and a host of doctors and other medical experts.

James, a Democrat, said Parson has struck a bipartisan tone generally since taking over for Eric Greitens in June, soon after Unsicker’s bill died.

“One of the things I’ve always said about politics in today’s world is it’s more about winning than solving problems,” James said, “and I want to let you know that the reason I like this guy is I think he is about trying to solve problems. Doesn’t matter whether there’s an R or a D, we’ve never had problems talking together, working on things together and I don’t think we ever will.”

James said he appreciated that Parsons was willing to take time to visit Truman and “talk to the people that really do know what they’re talking about” when it comes to the state’s high rates of pregnancy-related deaths.

Missouri ranks 42nd nationally in maternal mortality in a country that has some of the highest rates in the industrialized world.

Missouri’s rate of 32.6 maternal deaths per 100,000 births is worse than that of Albania (29 per 100,000 in 2015), China (27 per 100,000) and Iran (25 per 100,000), and it’s rising.

The state is slightly better when it comes to infant deaths, ranking 37th in the U.S. at 27.3 deaths per 100,000 live births.

As in other states, outcomes are starkly worse for Missouri babies and pregnant women of color, something James and the Kansas City Health Department have tried to raise awareness about.

Experts cite many potential reasons for Missouri’s struggles, including shortages of OB-GYNs in some parts of the state, lack of health insurance coverage for some residents and relatively high rates of smoking while pregnant.

On Thursday, no one offered concrete policy proposals. But Unsicker’s bill would have established a committee of experts to study every maternal death in the state.

Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services and himself an OB-GYN, said Thursday that the department is already moving to do that internally.

But in the past Unsicker has said putting it in law would ensure that future administrations keep the practice going and make the state more likely to get federal grants to fund it.

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Kansas City Star health reporter Andy Marso was part of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist team at The Star and previously won state and regional awards at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Health Institute News Service. He has written two books, including one about his near-fatal bout with meningitis.