Weekly Columns

Christy Turlington Burns is famous for her modeling career, but in recent years she has used her influence to advocate for maternal health. In April, the Arkansas Cinema Society premiered her documentary “Giving Birth in America: Arkansas” to highlight the challenges expectant mothers in our state face.

According to a recent report by the March of Dimes, a nonprofit focused on improving pregnancy outcomes, nearly half of Arkansas’s counties are maternity care deserts, or areas that do not have access to pregnancy or medical centers.

Unfortunately, The Natural State has the highest maternal mortality rate and the third-highest infant mortality rate in the nation, but efforts across the public and private sectors are underway to improve the health of moms and newborns.

In Congress, there is bipartisan support for the Prematurity Research Expansion and Education for Mothers who deliver Infants Early (PREEMIE) Reauthorization Act of 2023. I’m proud to champion this legislation that would reauthorize critical research, education and intervention activities to reduce pre-mature birth and infant mortality.

Investments in research and education programs are helping provide positive outcomes, but there is more work to do. In 2021 in Arkansas, 12 percent of babies were born preterm. That’s why we need to advance policies like the PREEMIE Act that will increase opportunities for children to lead long and healthy lives.

Just days ago, the Senate committee with jurisdiction over this legislation advanced it to the floor for consideration. I am urging my colleagues to join us and approve this critical bill so we can provide the support necessary to reduce preterm births, adequately care for pre-mature newborns and ensure mothers also receive proper care and support.

Arkansas adopted new policies this year to help, including the Universal Newborn Screening Act signed into law by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. This legislation expanded the list of medical disorders doctors will screen for after birth. The new criteria will test for 37 medical disorders, following the federal standard set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The governor also signed into law a bill requiring Medicaid to cover depression screenings for women during pregnancy. These are important steps in raising our quality of maternal and infant care.

Another is the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ Institute for Digital Health and Innovation launch of a telehealth service to provide evidence-based guidelines for fetal medicine. The Antenatal and Neonatal Guidelines, Education and Learning System, or ANGELS Program, provides training for local technicians, establishes a 24-hour call center for physicians and expecting mothers and completes real-time ultrasound readings.

Services like these and organizations like the Arkansas Birthing Project work specifically to support our rural and Black communities, as they have an increased vulnerability to pregnancy-related complications and pre-mature births. 

Earlier this year, HHS, in partnership with the non-profit Baby2Baby, announced a new initiative to support new mothers with a Newborn Supply Kit that provides essential postpartum and newborn care items. Some of the first kits have already been delivered to Arkansas mothers. 

Enhancing care for our state’s babies and moms requires a comprehensive solution and we are working from all angles to support them, which will undoubtedly also benefit overall public health.  

As the father to three daughters and the grandfather of four grandchildren, I understand the joys and anxieties that accompany a new addition to the family. Protecting our mothers and children with services to promote their health is of the utmost importance. I will continue to support legislation and other policies to improve the well-being of mothers and provide babies with a healthy start in life.