Gov. Ralph Northam.

Gov. Ralph Northam marked the 50th anniversary of Virginia’s Medicaid program Monday by touting the program’s successful expansion and outlining plans for improving maternal and infant health.

The strategies announced Monday are aimed at realizing a goal Northam set in early June to eliminate racial disparities in maternal mortality by 2025.

African American mothers in Virginia have consistently died at more than twice the rate of white mothers during and after pregnancy and were more likely to die of natural causes, Virginia Department of Health data show, even as numbers and rates of maternal deaths fluctuated significantly in recent years.

“Maternal and infant deaths remain a troubling reality in our commonwealth and our nation,” said Dr. Jennifer Lee, director of the Department of Medical Assistance Services, which administers Medicaid. “There remain stark racial disparities for African American mothers and their babies rooted in generations of racism and historical barriers to quality health care for people of color.”

From 2009 to 2013, maternal mortality rates among African Americans ranged from 60 to 105 deaths per every 100,000 live births compared with 27 to 35 per 100,000 among white women, according to VDH. Preliminary numbers show that the overall maternal death rate increased from 46 per 100,000 live births in 2015 to 61.3 per 100,000 live births in 2016.

Lee said the Medicaid agency will help by using new technology to ensure qualifying low-income women don’t experience a gap in health insurance coverage; working with the Department of Social Services to streamline enrollment; and launching an outreach campaign this fall to reach pregnant women and to connect those in need with substance abuse treatment.

DMAS also will work with state agencies and the managed care organizations that administer Medicaid to strengthen early childhood interventions, curb tobacco use among pregnant women, share data and improve reporting on performance measures, Lee said.

“Finally, we need to listen to the most important voice, the voice of our consumers,” she said.

“We plan to engage with members to ask them what’s working well and what’s not, and we need to talk with community-based organizations, advocates and stakeholders. They often know more about what’s really going on out there than we do, and we need to work together to solve the problems.”

Northam addressed a crowd of DMAS employees gathered in the agency’s office lobby to thank them for their work that contributed to more than 296,000 Virginians being newly enrolled in Medicaid as a result of the program’s expansion.

The expansion, which narrowly passed through the state General Assembly last year, draws from federal funding made available through the Affordable Care Act and expanded eligibility for Medicaid to include Virginians who make up to 139% of the federal poverty level — or $2,454 a month for a family of three.

DMAS estimates that up to 400,000 people could be newly eligible for the health plan under the new criteria.

Northam also referenced his administration’s commitment to focusing on inequities.

“We have really tried to refocus our administration on a lot of inequities that exist in our society today,” Northam said. “One of the inequities that I really believe is quite glaring is the inequities of mothers of color and the mortality rate that not only they face but also that their children face. ... This is unacceptable.”

Last month, Northam signed a bill codifying the state’s Maternal Mortality Review Team, which is studying the issue and plans to present a report on its findings later this year.

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