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House Finance hears a bill to improve health outcomes for mothers and babies



While the Rhode Island State House reverberated with chants for and against abortion rights, a bill to allow Medicaid to cover the cost of doulas was quietly heard in the basement…

“Not many people, I suspect, know who doulas are,” said Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) to the House Committee on Finance Tuesday afternoon. The Rhode Island State House was packed with supporters and opponents of a woman’s right to abortion. The Senate Judiciary Committee was busy voting down a bill that would codify Roe v Wade. Chants of “My Body, My Choice” and “Life! Life! Life! Life!” could be heard throughout the building, even in room 35, where a small group of mostly women were advocating for a bill (H5609) that will allow for better outcomes for mothers and babies.

House Finance Committee Chair, Representative Marvin Abney (Democrat, District 73, Newport), held the doula bill for last. Those wanting to testify waited for well over an hour while other bills were heard. Even so, the committee members, from all reports, were very interested and attentive in the doula bill.

“Doulas have been around for centuries,” said Ranglin-Vassell, “women taking care of women. Doulas are not medically trained, however they are trained birth workers who provide emotional/physical comfort, self care, advocacy, [and] cultural support for pregnant and lactating moms from the moment a woman realizes that she is pregnant.”

Most, if not all of those testifying in favor of the doula bill are staunchly pro-choice. Kavelle Christie, who is leading the charge, is the Public Policy and Organizing Specialist at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. [Christie can be heard testifying in video number 5 below.] Many of the women testifying wore pink, to show their support for the bills being voted on in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but these women were not with the crowds on the third floor or in the rotunda. They were in the basement, testifying in support of doula services.

Kavelle Christie

“Doulas provide support even after pregnancy,” continued Ranglin-Vassell. “While the cost of doula services varies, it costs between $300 and $1,200 on average for a doula or doula service. Because of the cost many women, especially women of color and poor women – and these women are the highest risk for adverse outcomes – they are unable to access doula services.”

“According to the Centers for Disease Control women of color are three to four times more likely to die from birthing or pregnancy related experiences. The sad reality is it happens often.

“An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure and we cannot afford to wait. This is a moral imperative. As you may be aware this issue cuts across economic lines. I say this because of the public statements and declarations of Beyoncé and Serena Williams, both who had complicated and life-threatening pregnancies.”

The doula bill has already been heard in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Below is also coverage of the event introducing the bill.

“I had my own challenges after the birth of my twin boys,” said Ranglin-Vassell, reflecting on her own experiences. “Five days after I brought those beautiful babies home I developed eclampsia and had a subarachnoid hemorrhage. I went back to Women and Infants. On day five I was transferred from Women and Infants to Rhode Island Hospital and I stayed there for a week or more just struggling and trying to stay alive…

“Well, I am here today but sadly some woman didn’t make it and that’s why this bill is so important to me. I want to call attention to the fact that it happened to me although I have a degree in community health education, worked at Women and Infants for a number of years and have so much information… That shows that it cuts across economic lines. Educational background doesn’t matter.

“This is a good, compassionate bill. It will save Medicaid dollars. This money will be saved by reducing the number of c-sections as well as dramatically or drastically reducing the cost of caring for preterm babies.

Here’s the video of Ranglin-Vassell’s testimony:

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Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza did not testify in person, but he submitted written testimony in support of the bill:

“I am writing in support of House Bill 5609, to provide for medical assistance health care for expectant mothers and establish medical assistance coverage and reimbursement rates for perinatal doula services.

“As Mayor of Providence, I am committed to supporting access to comprehensive maternal health care, including doula services. Doula services are known to lower maternity care costs while also improving health outcomes for infants and mothers. Of particular importance is the role doulas can play in reducing high rates of maternal morbidity and mortality for women of color. Access to doula care is therefore a health equity issue.

“I strongly encourage you to support this bill and ensure equitable access to essential maternal health services for Rhode Island women and families. Thank you for your consideration.”

Here is the rest of the testimony that night:

The committee members asked good questions as well:

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.