Want to Grow the Economy? Prioritize Maternal Health

Solving our maternal health crisis isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s an economic one. The good news is investing in mom’s health pays dividends.

Right now, there may be no bigger challenge facing our state.

Arkansas ranks 50th in maternal mortality. In more than half of our counties, zero providers are licensed to deliver a baby. And our infant mortality rate is the third highest in the nation. The consequences are costing our families and our economy dearly.

According to a new report from Heartland Forward, “The Economic Case for Investing in Maternal Health,” the lack of quality care is costing our state nearly $2 billion every year. As a mother and an investor, I find that these numbers set off alarm bells.

Thankfully, momentum is building for change. Following a year of advocacy by maternal health experts, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order aimed at improving care before, during and after childbirth.

The governor’s plan promises to enroll more pregnant women in Medicaid, streamline benefits and eliminate gaps in care. This is important because more than half of births in Arkansas are covered by Medicaid, and 1 in 8 women of childbearing age is uninsured.

The governor has requested that businesses, philanthropy and other advocates help state agency leaders develop a strategic plan for maternal health moving forward.

This is where I see my organization, Ingeborg Initiatives, being most helpful. At Ingeborg, we are on a mission to empower Arkansas moms by improving maternal health, advancing women’s economic opportunity and expanding access to early learning for children.

Our team is working with the Arkansas Strategic Committee for Maternal Health on solutions, and I encourage the business community to come to the table as well.

The Heartland Forward report lays out several actionable priorities:

First, it recommends training and hiring more qualified health care workers to fill care gaps: community health workers, doulas, midwives, primary care doctors with OB-GYN training and mental health professionals.

While this may sound expensive, preventive prenatal care actually reduces costly interventions and negative labor outcomes later on. Heartland Forward estimates that preventing half of our maternal deaths and adverse birth outcomes could save Arkansas $872 million annually. That money could train countless health care professionals or build two hospitals each year.

It also suggests using telehealth to ease health care staff shortages.

Increasing reimbursement rates to incentivize and retain providers is essential, as well as increasing transparency on costs and data to help families make good choices.

Beyond birth, more needs to be done to help mothers access paid leave, and affordable child care, and to and build financial resiliency. But first, we must focus on the task at hand — submitting maternal health recommendations to Gov. Sanders just five months from now.

Ensuring that mom is healthy is the most efficient, impactful intervention we can make for our families, our communities and our shared prosperity. Investing in maternal health is not just pro-family, it’s pro-growth.


Olivia Walton is an advocate for the arts, women’s empowerment and maternal health. She is the chair of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the founder of Ingeborg Investments and a co-founder of the Heartland Summit. She previously worked as a journalist for NBC News, MSNBC and as an anchor for Bloomberg in New York and London.

This article originally appeared in our sister publication, Arkansas Business.

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