It’s rare to find Gov. Paul LePage, the Maine Legislature and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services all on the same page. But that’s exactly what happened recently when LePage signed a bill into law — supported wholeheartedly by DHHS and lawmakers — to allow a panel to better understand the reasons behind infant deaths in Maine.
Long-term trends show the state’s infant mortality rate has been rising, which is a troubling indicator of a larger public health problem simmering beneath the surface. How well Maine takes care of new mothers and infants is considered a bellwether of changes to the health of a place. Maine was the only state in the nation to see a higher infant mortality rate on average between 2005 and 2014 than in the previous decade, from 1995 to 2004.
That’s why LD 1112, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, was so essential. Signed by LePage on June 14, it will expand the information-gathering powers of the Maine Maternal, Fetal and Infant Mortality Review Panel, so it can actually do its job.
The panel, made up largely of medical professionals, is charged by law with pinpointing the strengths and weaknesses of the system of care that’s supposed to safeguard moms and babies. It’s also supposed to make recommendations to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to decrease the rate of maternal and infant deaths.
But for years it hasn’t been able to do its work because neither the panel nor its coordinator had automatic access to the relevant medical records. The state health officer within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention had to request them in writing through a letter to the family of the deceased infant or mother, and the health officer couldn’t send that letter until four months after an infant or mother’s death.
The new law will 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 puts Maine’s law more in line with those of other states. The entire panel will not see the records, just the coordinator, who must have a medical license.
Now that the law is fixed, the essential work can begin. It will be up to the panel to dig into the factors that contribute to each infant death, while understanding not all deaths can be prevented. But the deaths that could have been prevented can give everyone else important insight into how to better care for some of the state’s most vulnerable.
Then, lawmakers will need to listen to the panel and figure out whether and how they can effectively respond. Hospitals and local social service organizations will need to pay attention to the panel’s reports, which are posted online, to see how they can contribute to lowering infant mortality rates, too. But these are the kinds of conversations that Maine really needs to have. Thanks to the passage of this bill and LePage’s signature, the important work can begin.