The U.S. House of Representatives took an important step forward yesterday in addressing our nation’s maternal health crisis by suspending rules and passing the Helping Medicaid Offer Maternity Services (MOMS) Act, HR 4996. It was a historic bipartisan move, applauded by advocacy groups and the Black Maternal Health Caucus and supported by key Black women leaders including Rep. Robyn Kelly and Rep. Lauren Underwood. The bill now moves to the Senate where a broad range of advocacy organizations, including Community Catalyst, urge speedy passage of this essential legislation.

As highlighted during a congressional briefing in mid-September organized by March for Moms, Every Mother Counts, National Birth Equity Collaborative, Families USA and Community Catalyst and sponsored by a broad coalition of Senate and House champions, the moment to move the conversation forward is now. Racial inequities in maternal health have reached crisis proportions, with mortality for Black and Indigenous women nearly four times as high as for white women. Across the country, advocates have demanded action on maternal health. National advocates such as Black Mamas Matter Alliance, the National Birth Equity Collaborative, Black Women’s Health Imperative, National Medical Association, Every Mother Counts, March for Moms, Families USA and Community Catalyst are actively working to improve maternity care for women of color and have long called on legislators to take this up as a priority.

The Helping MOMS Act is the first significant legislative step to ensure that all pregnant people have access to high-quality health care, free of bias and discrimination, throughout the prenatal and postpartum period. The Helping MOMS Act is a critical step towards ensuring that new mothers have access to health care when they need it most. The majority of maternal deaths happen not during delivery, but rather during the vulnerable postpartum period. Nearly one quarter of deaths happen more than six weeks postpartum, a period when new mothers can face a range of medical challenges, such as complications from childbirth, chronic conditions, or postpartum depression all while caring for a newborn. Despite these risks, pregnancy-related Medicaid currently only covers women for eight weeks after delivery of a child. This coverage cutoff exposes new mothers to a health insurance cliff and, particularly in states without Medicaid expansion, can leave them without access to medical services that are essential for their well-being, as well as the health of their infants. The Helping MOMS Act would enable states to use a state plan amendment to extend Medicaid coverage for new moms through one year postpartum, allowing them to access critical health services.

To be clear – and as reiterated by a broad set of advocates – this is just the beginning. This Helping MOMS legislation paves the way for more targeted and robust policy opportunities. In particular, legislation that fully accomplishes the goal of postpartum coverage would mandate that all states implement 12 month postpartum Medicaid coverage and provide a higher FMAP of 90 percent in order to ensure success. We applaud this initial and important first step in improving maternal health and look forward to further legislation guided by advocate voices.

Our work is far from done – the momentum is finally moving in the right direction and sets the stage for robust and structural changes that will address the deep inequities that plague our maternal health system so that all birthing people, specifically Black and brown people, have access to respectful care and good health outcomes.

Tess Solomon is a consultant with the Women’s Health Program at Community Catalyst. Her earlier post on this legislation is here.