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Health leaders gather in Austin to address Texas maternal mortality and morbidity

A doctor performs a sonogram on a pregnant woman lying on an exam table.
Teresa Crawford
The summit will discuss social determinants of health that impact pregnancy outcomes, which include access to transportation, childcare, housing and food.

Nurses, researchers and health agencies gather in Austin this week to address maternal mortality and morbidity in the state. This comes as state lawmakers consider bills aimed at expanding family health care access.

More than 400 people will head to the state capital this week for a summit on maternal and infant health.

Nagla Elerian, the program director for the Texas Collaborative for Healthy Mothers and Babies, said this year’s focus is on social determinants of health, which include environmental factors that impact health outcomes — things like affordable housing and transportation issues.

“This year we’re really focused on training and education, and connecting people together,” she said.

Speakers at the summit — which begins Thursday — include pediatricians, researchers and OBGYN specialists, along with health professionals from other states like Louisiana and Illinois.

Texas Tech University Psychiatry Chair Sarah Wakefield will also present on a new, state-funded pilot program for mental health support during pregnancy, called the Perinatal Psychiatric Access Network (PeriPAN). The program helps doctors and nurses identify mental health signs and symptoms in pregnant people and get them connected to resources in the community.

Mental health conditions were the second-leading cause of death among pregnant people in Texas, according to a case review in the latest Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee report.

“We have been seeing an increase in maternal mortality and morbidity in the state of Texas,” Elerian said. “We know that we do see a lot of disparities. We want to look at how we can address and eliminate these disparities.”

This year, the Texas Legislature is considering bills to expand Medicaid access up to 12 months postpartum; a pilot program for doula coverage under Medicaid; and more up-to-date maternal mortality and morbidity data from hospitals.

David Lakey, the vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas System, said the summit’s goal is to improve the quality of care that people receive when pregnant to prevent serious illness and death.

"We’re challenged in Texas related to the availability of health care,” he said. “A lot of rural hospitals have challenges with delivering babies, but we need all of them on board, making sure they know what they need to do when a [parent] gets into trouble.”

He added that he’s hopeful bringing folks together will mean improved care for pregnant people.

“I’ve seen the impact when somebody loses their mom during childbirth,” Lakey said. “It has an impact on that family for generations.”

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenaiswriting.

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Elena Rivera is the health reporter at KERA. Before moving to Dallas, Elena covered health in Southern Colorado for KRCC and Colorado Public Radio. Her stories covered pandemic mental health support, rural community health access issues and vaccine equity across the region.