Public health officials need to expand access to care and doctors must focus more on patient experiences to reverse black maternal mortality rates in Ohio, local leaders told Sen. Sherrod Brown on Tuesday.

Brown, D-Cleveland, hosted a roundtable discussion at PrimaryOne Health’s John R. Maloney Health Center on the South Side to hear from Columbus health care leaders and mothers about the issue.

“The black maternal health crisis has shed light on the implicit biases that still exist in our health care system, and the many barriers to care that so many in our community face,” Brown said. “We know we need to do more — that’s why I’m here today, and it’s why I’ll be hosting more of these conversations around our state.”

The Ohio Department of Health has reported substantial racial disparities in deaths involving white and black moms. Black women accounted for 17% of women giving birth from 2012 to 2016, but 34% of pregnancy-related deaths in Ohio.

That difference is caused by a number of factors, including a lack of access for black women and low-income expectant mothers to transportation and other services, said DeNika Pollard, a community health worker with CelebrateOne. Not all women, Pollard said, have a car or a bus within walking distance to get to their doctor’s office.

Along with getting to the doctor in the first place, Pollard said black women sometimes see doctors who don’t always take their feelings and concerns as seriously as they should.

“Some just don’t understand the way they impact the lives of black women ... for example some may just see a black mom as a number,” Pollard said.

Maternal mortality, especially among black mothers, has long been an issue in Ohio.

In November, the Ohio Department of Health released a report showing that more than half of all pregnancy-related deaths in Ohio from 2012 to 2016 could have been prevented.

Over the five years, around 57% of the state’s 89 pregnancy-related deaths were deemed preventable, according to the study. That means nearly 51 deaths could have been avoided.

Brown introduced two bills last March to tackle the mortality issue and access to care.

Brown’s Mothers and Offspring Mortality and Morbidity Awareness Act, would standardize data collection for pregnancy deaths, establish national protocol for obstetric emergencies and provide best practices for maternal mortality review committees. He has also introduced a bill that he said would ensure an expectant mother’s access to care by creating a special insurance enrollment period for pregnant women.

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