Organizers with March of Dimes met with lawmakers Thursday at the Wisconsin State Capitol as a part of a national lobbying effort advocating for better infant and maternal health care.
Nonprofit organization March of Dimes works toward preventing maternal health risks and deaths, ending preterm births, ending infant death and erasing disparities in access to health care.
During Thursday’s “March for Change,” advocates emphasized the vitality of greater funding for a range of legislative actions that would improve health care for Wisconsin’s mothers and babies.
“With March of Dimes today, what we're advocating for are primarily items that were included in Gov. [Tony] Evers’ budget proposal, and we're asking legislators to support those items,” said Melanie Bartholf, secretary-treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1473.
Specific policies organizers advocated for included raising the state budget’s allocation of funding for prenatal screening, increasing Medicaid coverage from 90 days to 12 months postpartum, including doula coverage in Medicaid and preventing the “shackling” of pregnant and postpartum people in correctional facilities, Bartholf said.
March of Dimes leaders provided participants with information on how to advocate for better health care for mothers and babies in the state as well as an opportunity to meet lawmakers to advocate for addressing Wisconsin’s high preterm birth rate, infant mortality rate and postpartum pregnancy-related death rate.
Among those who participated in the event’s press conference were Katie and Matt Wessel, a family committed to fighting for the lives of babies and mothers since losing their son to complications of premature birth.
“After his death, we created the Randol Thomas Wessel Memorial Fund, and we continue to raise money in his honor, which has solely benefited the March of Dimes,” said Katie Wessel.
Wisconsin recorded a preterm birth rate of 10% in 2021, indicating that one in 10 babies experienced the risks connected with premature birth, including increased risks of death and disability.
Wisconsin received a “C” grade for its preterm birth rate in the latest March of Dimes report card. Wisconsin also recorded an infant mortality rate of 5.8% in 2020, above the United States average of 5.4%.
Newborn screening helps parents and doctors identify potential health concerns that can affect a child's long term health or survival, according to Katie Wessel.
In Wisconsin, there are currently 48 conditions on the newborn screening panel for detection.
“That's less than 20% of what is possible and is significantly lower when compared with other Midwest states,” Katie Wessel said.
March of Dimes also lobbied for the extension of postpartum Medicaid coverage to 12 months, which Evers recommended in his 2023-25 budget proposal.
Currently, pregnancy-related Medicaid benefits end 90 days after the mother gives birth.
Approximately 97% of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, according to Wisconsin’s Maternal Mortality Review Team. Most occurred after 90 days postpartum, according to Dr. Nathan Lepp, chair of advocacy for March of Dimes with areas of clinical focus in neonatology and newborn nursery.
Katie Wessel also opposed the 90-day limit of postpartum Medicaid coverage.
“This disrupts the continuity and quality of care for postpartum women and contributes to poor outcomes for the mother and the baby, [including] the unthinkable outcome of maternal death,” she said.
Both Katie Wessel and Lepp called for Medicaid to reimburse doula services to help patients, especially from more vulnerable populations, to save money when seeking continued health care after giving birth.
Black women are around five times more likely to die due to a pregnancy-related condition than white women, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
“The community-based doula model responds to the disinvestment within Black, Brown and indigenous communities by providing culturally relevant reflective support for access to information and referrals,” said Katie Wessel.
“Every new mother should have the peace of mind that comes with knowing she'll be able to get the health care that she needs after the child is born,” Katie Wessel added.
March for Change advocates also explained that a lack of adequate maternal health care both during pregnancy and postpartum especially affects incarcerated mothers via a process called “shackling.” The majority of women incarcerated in Wisconsin are of childbearing age and assemble into jail or prison pregnant, according to Lepp.
“As of today, pregnant women in Wisconsin's jails and prisons are not always able to freely accommodate the physical demands of their bodies,” said Katie Wessel. “This is because our state has yet to join the other states in banning the dangerous practice of shackling.”
Thursday’s March for Change drew individuals from different counties, including concerned mothers and family members.
“I have a sister that had two children born prematurely because she did not have a lot of care to take care of her throughout the kids' ongoing and [then] upbringing,” said Chris Hibbens, an employee of UFCW 1473 and a participating advocate. “It just really hit close to home.”
“I advocate for working people every single day, and I understand the importance of caring for our moms and our babies from that perspective, but especially now as a mom myself,” said Bartholf.
Bartholf also reflected deeper concerns about the progress of Wisconsin’s infant and maternal health care system over time.
“We've actually seen the overturning of Roe v. Wade. We've seen our own reproductive health care access threatened here in the state,” Bartholf said. “That's still something that's working its way through the court systems. We're actually moving backwards.”
March for Change attendees called for implementing progress at a legislative level rather than more discussion.
“There's good things being talked about, but we need our legislature to take those items seriously and enact them,” Bartholf said.
Toward the end of her speech, Katie Wessel pointed out the available space in the state’s budget surplus as an indicator that implementing change is well within reach.
“Implementing all of these programs requires budget dollars from a state that is trying to decide what to do with a $7 billion budget surplus,” said Katie Wessel. “I think we can all agree that we have the funds to do this and there's no reason why we shouldn't.”