The Select Committee for Women and Children held a press conference in of the Louisiana State Capitol Building. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)
With Louisiana sitting near the bottom nationally on health outcomes for women and children, activists are still seeking answers for why a bill to establish a Louisiana Office on Women’s Health stalled.
Alma Stewart, founder and president of the Louisiana Center for Health Equity, said she wants to know why House Bill 193 wasn’t heard by the Senate Finance Committee. The bill, introduced by Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, would have created an office dedicated to improving women’s health outcomes within the Louisiana Health Department.
The bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives, but was stalled in the Senate Finance Committee because the committee chair, Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Baton Rouge, never took it up. With no hearing scheduled, Senate members never voted on it.
“The creation of this office had strong support, both from the public as well as from legislators that had the opportunity to vote for it and then it got to one person who decided that he was going to basically kill the bill by not scheduling it for a hearing in his committee,” Stewart said.
Stewart and her organization have been trying to meet with White since June. Stewart said he has ignored all of their messages, which she finds concerning. While the bill will most likely be brought up in the next legislative session, Stewart worries that the same issues will resurface and the bill will once again be stymied, especially since they don’t know why White stalled the bill in the first place.
“We’ve attempted to meet with him numerous times and we’ve been ignored. He’s put us off and put us off and put us off,” Stewart said.
White could not be reached for comment.
Stewart’s organization started a petition to gather support for the creation of the office, which has almost 6,000 signatures. At the Sept. 28 Louisiana Senate Select Committee on Women and Children, lawmakers voiced concerns about women’s health issues.
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, got Senate Bill 133 passed during the last legislative session, a bill which directed the state health department to address healthcare disparities for women and other vulnerable demographics.
While House Bill 193 was projected to cost $1.8 million over five years, Senate Bill 133 didn’t have any increased costs, according to fiscal notes on the bill.
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As a result of Senate Bill 133, offices within the Louisiana Health Department are currently being evaluated on their efforts to address women’s health. Recommendations on how departments can be improved in the regard will be developed in the next few months, with a final assessment due to the legislature on Feb. 15.
Barrow said it was extremely important to make sure there were no departmental overlaps or missing resources for women.
“That’s one reason why we were looking at the importance of creating the office itself. We believe in the office there would be no gaps because everything would be in one place or one hub as opposed to several different hubs,” Barrow said during the committee meeting.
Louisiana is ranked 49th in the nation in overall health for women and children, according to America’s Health Rankings 2020 Annual Report. The state has the second highest infant mortality rate in the U.S., with a death rate of 8.07 infants per 1000 live births.
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Louisiana also has an extremely high maternal mortality rate, and a large disparity between mortality rates in white and black mothers. Black women are four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications. Stewart said current initiatives aren’t doing enough to improve healthcare in these areas.
“As a woman in Louisiana, and as a Black woman in Louisiana, the health outcome for women in this state is very undesirable. And when you look at the disparity for Black women, you can just focus on the maternal mortality rate. Four times more women die in Louisiana- and by some sources I have seen-five more black women die in childbirth,” Stewart said. “That is totally unacceptable. And as a Black woman I would like personally to see improvement. Real improvement.”
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