A legislative committee unanimously approved a bill on Tuesday that would give new information-gathering powers to a state panel charged with examining the reasons behind infant and maternal deaths in Maine. The legislation also requires that the panel meet at least twice a year.

The legislation follows reporting last summer by the BDN’s Maine Focus team that found Maine was the only state to see a long-term increase in its infant mortality rate over the past two decades. Only Maine had a higher infant mortality rate on average between 2005 and 2014 than in the previous decade, from 1995 to 2004.

But while Maine experienced a generally rising infant mortality rate, the state panel charged with examining the circumstances of infant deaths was largely unable to do its work, the BDN found. In fact, until late March, the group went nearly three years without meeting.

Under the 2006 law that created the Maternal, Fetal and Infant Mortality Review Panel, the group’s coordinator is supposed to review the deaths of all women during pregnancy or within 42 days of giving birth, the majority of fetal deaths that occur after 28 weeks, and the majority of deaths of infants under 1 year of age. The coordinator is then supposed to provide summaries of each death to panel members — most of whom are medical professionals — without including identifying information.

The current law, however, doesn’t allow the panel or its coordinator automatic access to the relevant medical records. The state health officer within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention must request them in writing through a letter to the family, and the health officer can’t send that letter until four months after an infant or mother’s death. The four-month waiting period also applies to a request from the panel coordinator to interview family members.

“The process of finding cases was detective work, and then you had to wait four months,” Dr. Jay Naliboff, a panel member and vice president of medical affairs at Farmington’s Franklin Memorial Hospital, told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday. “By then, the families had moved, changed their telephone numbers, didn’t want to talk to us.”

The legislation approved by the committee on Tuesday would allow the panel’s coordinator to review medical records related to the case of an infant or mother dying without first having to seek the family’s permission, which would put Maine’s law more in line with those of other states.

The legislation also would require that the review panel meet at least twice a year.

The bill, LD 1112, next goes to the state Senate for an initial vote.