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– A group of lawmakers wants to bring telehealth to bear on the nation’s high maternal mortality rate, with a bill that aims to improve broadband connectivity in rural regions where new and expecting mothers lack access to care.

The Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act (S. 3152), introduced this week by US Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Todd Young (R-IN), would use data mapping to identify regions of the country where high rates of poor maternal health overlap with lack of broadband access. The government would then help to boost broadband resources so that health systems could establish telehealth programs to improve care.

“In rural areas especially, lack of access to medical services can lead to severe complications and worse outcomes for pregnant women,” Rosen said in a joint press release. “This legislation would work to map out areas with a need for both increased maternal care and access to internet. With this information, we can better target where telemedicine and technology infrastructure improvements can be most effective to improve outcomes for moms, and to save lives.”

“Telehealth technology can help track the health of mothers who don’t have easy access to routine checkups,” Fischer added. “But first, we need to ensure there’s adequate internet connectivity.”

The bill targets a hot-button item that connected health could certainly address.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the maternal mortality rate in the US more than doubled from 1991 to 2014, rising from 10.3 mother’s deaths per 1000,000 live births to 23.8. More than 700 women die each year from complications related to pregnancy, yet two out of every three deaths could be prevented.

Several health systems and states have launched connected health programs aimed at improving access to care for new and expectant moms through connected health platforms, including telehealth services and mHealth apps. In addition, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently issued grants to 10 states to help launch Maternal Opioid Misuse (MOM) Model programs, designed to improve care coordination and management for new and expecting moms struggling with substance abuse.

This isn’t Congress’ first shot at the issue, either. Last August, US Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Tina Smith (D-MN), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Doug Jones (D-AL) introduced the Rural Maternal and Obstetric Modernization of Services (MOMS) Act, designed to “help ensure that new and expecting mothers living in rural communities have access to the health care they need.”

“This legislation provides real solutions to expanding care through telehealth grants and other programs to increase the number of health care providers in rural areas, and takes important steps to address our unacceptable rate of maternal mortality in this country,” Jones said in a press release.

That bill would also direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study maternal mortality and morbidity; create new grants to establish regional innovation networks to improve maternal mortality and morbidity as well as birth outcomes; establish a new training care demonstration program; and launch studies to identify gaps in maternity care and identify ways to close those gaps.

READ MORE: UAB Continues Telehealth Expansion, Adds Maternal-Fetal Services

The bill should not be confused with another MOMS Act, the Modernizing Obstetric Medicine Standards Act of 2019 (S.116). Introduced one year ago by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), that bill aims to, among other things, create an Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health program and develop grants to help hospitals and health systems improve their maternal care efforts.

Then there’s the Maximizing Outcomes for Moms through Medicaid Improvement and Enhancement of Services (MOMMIES) Act, introduced in May 2019 in both the Senate and House, which aims to “improve maternal health outcomes, reverse the trend of rising maternal mortality rates, and close disparities that put mothers and kids of color at risk.”

With this latest bill, Congress is pulling the Federal Communications Commission into the fray by making broadband connectivity part of the discussion. Telehealth advocates have long argued that a lack of access to reliable broadband is a significant barrier to access to care.

To that end, the FCC has proposed changes to the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program to boost support for telehealth expansion, and it’s moving forward with the Connected Care Pilot Program, a three-year, $100 million effort to expand telehealth and mHealth programs to benefit underserved populations, including rural residents and veterans.

“The rising rate of maternal mortality is a national crisis,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in the senators’ press release. “Far too many pregnant women are not able to access the care they need. But solutions to this problem do exist and technology can help. But we will never be able to manage the problems we do not measure.”

“This is a terrific tool, because it will help build a fuller picture of where we require resources to improve maternal health and how expanded telehealth resources can be deployed to those areas,” she added.

Source: Congress Eyes Broadband Access, Telehealth to Tackle Maternal Mortality