It was alarming enough to learn that the rate of Texas women dying of pregnancy-related causes nearly doubled in the last four years.
Now comes the troubling news that the Department of State Health Services won’t release critical case-level data on these deaths that could lead to finding out why.
Dallas Morning News reporters J. David McSwane and Terri Langford asked for the data under the Texas Public Information Act after a recent study showed that Texas’ maternal mortality rate shot up to 35.8 per 100,000 births from 18.6 in 2010.
The numbers were even more startling for black women in a separate report commissioned by the state found that they were twice as likely as white women to die within a year after their pregnancy.
The state has refused to release summary index data with valuable information – such as the names, causes of death, the last known addresses of the deceased – citing a 2011 ruling by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott that the information should be kept secret to prevent fraud.
We’re all for protecting Texans’ identities from folks who might use them for wrongdoing. But lives are at stake. The release of this information is critical to getting to the bottom of this public health scare.
There has to be a way to protect patients’ privacy while also allowing doctors and researchers to delve into the details of these cases. Other states – that readily release this information – have figured it out. Texas had a system in place until 2010.
But no more.
Imagine where we’d be if the Centers for Disease Control couldn’t collect detailed case data to develop protocols on how we can protect ourselves from Ebola and the West Nile virus.
Both reports on maternal mortality noted the lack of affordable health care as a cause for concern, especially with Texas being home to more uninsured people than any other state.
One can’t help but wonder if the 2011 Texas Legislature’s cuts to family planning that closed 82 clinics played a role. A Department of State Health Services spokesman says there’s no evidence that it has. We need to know for sure.
Democrat Rep. Armando Walle of Houston – vice chairman of the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee – argues that the Legislature needs to revisit the exemptions in the open records law.
“There seems to be a lot of women dying,” he said. “We need to know why they’re dying. You can’t make corrective action if we don’t know why these women are dying.”
We urge Gov. Abbott to reassess his thinking on this issue, given what’s happened to maternity death rates since his 2011 ruling. Texas must be better than this.