Arkansas advocacy group collecting stories about poor maternal health care

Website solicits, posts stories of moms behind the statistics

Katie O'Brien holds her son, Bennett, in the birthing room where she delivered him in July 2023 in this Aug. 29, 2023 file photo. (AP/Mark Humphrey)
Katie O'Brien holds her son, Bennett, in the birthing room where she delivered him in July 2023 in this Aug. 29, 2023 file photo. (AP/Mark Humphrey)


In a video on the website for a new Arkansas nonprofit, one woman says that for months after giving birth to her first son, she was hesitant to tell her doctor or reach out for help while dealing with suicidal and intrusive thoughts, out of fear of judgment or that her baby would be taken from her.

Another mom says in a video that during and after her pregnancy, she felt that, as a Black woman, she had to advocate for herself for her doctors to believe her.

Since it announced its formation in January, Arkansans for Improving Maternal Health has been collecting and sharing stories from moms "impacted by poor maternal health outcomes."

In a news release, the group said it will "amplify these stories to raise public awareness, cultivate champions for change and spur action to improve maternal healthcare access, affordability and quality."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arkansas' maternal mortality rate, 43.5 deaths per 100,000 births, in 2018-2021 was the highest among states for which a rate could be reliably calculated.

Provisional data from the CDC also shows Arkansas also had the country's third-highest infant mortality rate in 2022, with 7.67 infant deaths per 1,000 births.

"We know that behind those statistics are countless stories from families that have been personally impacted all across the state," Ashley Bearden Campbell, executive director of Arkansans for Improving Maternal Health, said.

On its website, aimforarkansas.org, the group invites people affected by poor maternal health care to share their stories by recording a video or submitting a written testimonial.

In one video, Bearden Campbell shares her own story of delivering her daughter, Aubrey, via emergency cesarean session at 28 weeks and five days in 2022.

A nurse noticed signs that she was facing postpartum depression and anxiety, and that inspired her to tell her story.

"I want folks to know that they're not alone," Bearden Campbell said.

"I think traditionally, there's been a stigma around mental health. There's a lot of pressure on moms to not talk about that type of stuff. So I absolutely believe that personal stories are incredibly impactful," she said.

In addition to her role at the nonprofit, Bearden Campbell is a lobbyist with Little Rock-based Impact Management Group.

A listing of the firm's clients by the Arkansas secretary of state's office includes Arkansas Heart Hospital, AmerisourceBergen Corp., and several other businesses in the health care industry as well as Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

Bearden Campbell said her roles with Arkansans for Improving Maternal Health and Impact Management are not connected and that the lobbying firm has no involvement with the nonprofit.

Records at the secretary of state's office show the nonprofit was incorporated in December and lists itself as a tax-exempt nonprofit social welfare organization under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code.

Compared to a 501(c)(3) organization, 501(c)(4) nonprofits have more leeway to lobby and engage in other political activity, but contributions to 501(c)(4) groups are not tax deductible.

"At this time, AIM has no plans to lobby," the nonprofit said in a statement in response to questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

According to the news release, the group plans to advocate for higher reimbursement rates for providers who deliver babies, more funding for medical schools and an increase in the number of residency slots in the state for medical school graduates.

Families, especially those in rural areas, struggle to find hospitals to safely deliver their infants, Bearden Campbell said.

A report by the March of Dimes, based on data from 2022, labeled 45.3% of Arkansas counties as maternity care deserts, defined as counties that don't have hospitals, birth centers offering obstetric care or obstetric providers.

Arkansans for Improving Maternal Health will also push for the state Medicaid program's coverage to be extended for pregnant women, as allowed under the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, from 60 days after a woman gives birth to 12 months.

The eligibility category in Arkansas applies to women with incomes up to 214% of the federal poverty level -- $42,200 for a single expectant mother with no other children.

Otherwise, Arkansas' income cutoff for adults who don't fall into another eligibility category, such as because of a disability, is 138% of the poverty level, or $27,213 for a two-person household.

According to KFF, formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation, 44 states and the District of Columbia have extended postpartum Medicaid coverage to 12 months, and three others are planning to do so.

The only states that have not extended coverage to 12 months are Arkansas, Iowa, Idaho and Wisconsin, although Wisconsin has extended coverage to 90 days postpartum and has a bill pending in its legislature that would extend it to the full 12 months.

In Arkansas, 44% of births are funded by Medicaid, Bearden Campbell said, "so it's incredibly important to ensure that our mothers and children have the highest quality of healthcare."

Gavin Lesnick, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Services, didn't directly answer when asked by the Democrat-Gazette if Arkansas has any plans to extend coverage for pregnant women to 12 months.

Instead, he referred to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' signature education overhaul legislation and another law passed by the Legislature last year.

"Governor Sanders' first priority is the health and safety of all Arkansans, and the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) works to achieve those same goals across all of our programs," Lesnick said in an email.

"Through the LEARNS Act she expanded maternity leave for teachers and through additional legislation, expanded maternity leave for state employees. Governor Sanders and DHS will continue to engage stakeholders, community members, and legislators to protect and improve quality of life for all Arkansans."

My Ly is a Report for America Corps member.

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