By Kathleen Peppo
BATON ROUGE–A bill to create an office for women’s health within the Louisiana Department of Health moved through the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, said she brought House Bill 193 to address inequities in Louisiana’s healthcare system.
Marcelle said that when it comes to inequity, “we can always do better.”
“In rural areas, we can make sure that patients do not have to travel as far,” she said. “Whether that is putting a clinic there, putting resources there, getting education to them so they know what they can do to have better outcomes.”
She said it would help to have a specific unit at LDH to address the issues.
Alma Stewart, president of the Louisiana Center for Health Equity and a registered nurse for over 40 years, said she has “seen things not get better but worse, and there’s evidence to support that.”
She said the state’s childbirth mortality rate is among the highest in the nation, and that rate is four times higher for Black women.
She also said in a prior interview that Louisiana is ranked 49th in healthcare outcomes for women and children based on 2020 national data.
“It is unacceptable for Louisiana to consistently rank at the bottom when it comes to health and quality of life for our children and our women,” Stewart said.
Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Shreveport, asked if supporters of the bill believe this discrepancy is “a product of the system and not culture or choices.”
Several rural areas in the state are categorized as healthcare deserts for women, areas where women have to travel an hour or more to see a doctor who specializes in women’s healthcare.
“If you have to travel two to three hours to deliver your baby, you’re already at risk before you get to the hospital,” said Stewart.
One example of a prenatal service covered in many states, but not in Louisiana, is midwifery. In Louisiana, many midwives are not allowed to practice to the full extent of their training. In areas where access to prenatal care is limited, this only exacerbates the issue.
Marcelle said that while healthcare access can still be expanded in communities like Baton Rouge, “in the rural communities that many of you represent, that inequity is greater. The more rural you get, the more inequity.”
Crews responded that he did not think “it’s a product of the system trying to make it that way.”
“I still maintain, since that’s the majority of the population, that should be the function of LDH, not a special office,” Crews said. “Do we need an office for men’s health? The whole department should be doing that for everybody.”
The bill was amended to narrow the scope of the proposed office for women’s health, ensuring that it would not be able to fund or promote abortion or correspond with any other entities that do promote abortion.