By: State Sen. Darrell Jackson
As a pastor and state senator, I have heard from and spoken with thousands upon thousands of members from my congregation and community throughout the years—including mothers and soon-to-be mothers who have confided in me the difficult experiences they have faced in our health care system during an already stressful period in their lives. These women’s stories only confirm the deep racial disparities that remain in our health care system, including access to the highest quality prenatal and maternal care.
We must accelerate our work to address these systemic racial inequities in our health care system, which are laid out especially clearly in our country’s prenatal and maternal health outcomes. Both the maternal mortality rate for Black women and the Black infant mortality rate are more than twice that of their white counterparts. These health disparities are not only the results of discriminatory levels of care post-pregnancy, but during prenatal care as well.
For example, women of color in South Carolina have far less access to the safest and most accurate screening options available for expecting mothers to identify genetic disorders in their babies: non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT). This type of testing is recommended by leading medical OB/GYNs and maternal fetal medicine physicians for all pregnant women. Compared to traditional screening options, NIPT – which only requires a mother’s blood sample to analyze a baby’s DNA – has a much higher success rate of detecting common genetic abnormalities in babies during pregnancies, and a much lower rate of producing accurate results. Inaccurate screening results can be hugely detrimental to expecting mothers, causing not only additional stress but also extra health care costs for further potentially invasive, unnecessary tests.
For more than two decades, South Carolina had an Office of Minority Health within the Department of Health and Environmental Control that served to specifically address these disparities in health care including in maternal and prenatal care. Unfortunately, while our state claims to be focusing on improving the health outcomes for all moms and babies through an initiative called the South Carolina Birth Outcomes Initiatives (SCBOI), this exact office that would have been most helpful has been hollowed out. It lacks the funding and leadership it needs to fill its role in the overall effort to address the health disparities that exist in the black community. Therefore, it is incumbent upon elected officials to shine this light and continue the fight to secure quality care for all mothers.
We can begin by ensuring that all South Carolina mothers have access to the highest quality prenatal care, such as NIPT. Most private insurers in our state already provide NIPT coverage to all women regardless of age or risk factor, but many South Carolinians who receive health benefits from Medicaid remain without access to the screening option. And with over half of our state’s Medicaid recipients identifying as people of color, our Black and brown communities once again find themselves left behind and without access to the best care available. This, while all public officials – including me and my colleagues – can receive unrestricted access to this prenatal screening through PEBA. We must and we can do better.
We cannot forget about the health disparities that continue to pervade our state’s health care system. We must continue to push for tangible reforms to address the existing racial disparities in our health care system, and we can start by helping make sure all South Carolina mothers – both privately and publicly insured – have access to the best prenatal and maternal care available.
Sen. Darrell Jackson has represented South Carolina’s 21st district, which includes Richland County, since 1993 and is senior pastor of Bible Way Church in Columbia.