Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher (left) announces with Commissioner Rodney Ellis (center), and executive director of Harris County Public Health Barbie Robinson (right)
Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher (left) announces with Commissioner Rodney Ellis (center), and executive director of Harris County Public Health Barbie Robinson (right) additional funding for Harris County to address Black maternal mortality rates.

Houston Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher has announced an additional $1.4 million in federal funding to be allocated to combatting Black maternal mortality in Harris County.

The U.S. itself has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world, with Black women being disproportionately impacted. According to data released by the CDC in March, the national maternal mortality rate rose for the fourth consecutive year in 2021, leaping up by 40% from 2020.

Texas has a rate higher than the country’s average, and Harris County’s average is even higher than the state’s overall.

“In Harris County, Black women are 3.5 times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts,” said Barbie Robinson, executive director of Harris County Public Health.

She says Black infant mortality is also high in Harris County. “If three counties – Cook County, which is the Chicago area, Wayne County, which is Detroit, and Harris County – were able to reduce Black infant mortality rates by just 9%, the entire country would achieve parity and equity in terms of infant mortality.”

The $1.4 million, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, will go toward Harris County Public Health’s Black Maternal and Child Health Program. The program launched last year and seeks to provide education and resources, including home visits, prenatal and parenting resources and transportation vouchers, to around 300 families.

Robinson said the county’s staggering rate of Black maternal mortality is partially due to institutional racism and implicit racial bias within the medical field, which Robinson said Harris County Public Health is seeking to address. The department is currently working on a report of Black maternal mortality data specific to each Houston-area hospital in order to identify where additional support, trainings and other interventions may be most necessary.

“We really want to educate the medical community on best practices and ways to identify and address those biases,” Robinson said.

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis also called out racial bias as a contributing factor. Ellis is the county commissioner for precinct 1, which had the highest maternal mortality rate in the county between 2016 and 2020.

“We can do better. However, interpersonal and structural racism, in part, cause delays in diagnoses and maternal health complications,” Ellis said.

According to a report published by the National Library of Medicine, racial bias in clinical settings does significantly impact health outcomes for Black patients and often leads Black mothers’ concerns to be dismissed.

“Racism is, indeed, a public health crisis,” Ellis said.

Robinson also partially attributes the high rates of Black maternal mortality to the fact that, despite being the third largest county in the nation, Harris County previously did not have maternal, child and adolescent health programming.

“We’re playing catch-up, relative to many other jurisdictions,” Robinson said. “But we’re looking to push the needle and reduce these kinds of outcomes.”