The Nation’s Health Secretary Has This Doctor on Call

SACRAMENTO — Carolina Reyes, a Harvard-trained physician who specializes in high-risk pregnancies, got into medicine to help women obtain health care, especially underserved or marginalized people who face systemic racism. She’s seen progress, albeit slow, over three decades, yet the number of maternal deaths each year continues to rise.

Luckily, she’s got the ear of President Joe Biden’s health secretary.

Reyes, 64, is married to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, who is championing the administration’s initiative to require all states to provide Medicaid coverage to mothers for a year after giving birth. In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing a 40% increase in U.S. maternal deaths from 2020 to 2021. The mortality rate among Black women was 2.6 times that of white women, no matter their economic status.

Over the years, Becerra has spoken highly of his wife’s expertise, but she downplays her influence, saying her husband of nearly 35 years “had it in him to begin with” to improve health care for women and to demand fewer pregnancy-related deaths. She, too, describes the nation’s high maternal mortality rate as unacceptable and preventable.

Reyes, a Latina who grew up as one of eight children in California’s agricultural heartland, now practices perinatology at the University of California-Davis. She is a member of a California Department of Public Health panel that reviews cases of maternal deaths and recommends improvements. And she chairs the board of the California Health Care Foundation, a nonprofit that works to increase health care access. (California Healthline is an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.)

Her work has been a blend of medicine and advocacy, and she worries recent federal court rulings will erode hard-fought victories regarding the safety of pregnant women and their babies. She discussed the nation’s maternal health crisis and health care disparities with California Healthline senior correspondent Samantha Young. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: When did you first realize there are disparities in the health care system?

When I was in high school in the Fresno Unified School District, we were under a consent decree to desegregate. And I was, at the time, student body president at Roosevelt High School. I was asked to be on this unified school district desegregation task force, where the district had to come up with a plan.

It was a time when I really had incredible exposure to how policies are made at a larger level, societal level, that really determine where people live, where they can seek health care, where they go to school. That experience had a tremendous impact on my life in terms of what I wanted to do in a career and how to give back.

Q: The U.S. has one of the best health care systems in the world, yet the maternal mortality rate is high compared with other developed countries. Why do think that is?

What we know by the CDC and maternal mortality review committees is that about 60% of maternal deaths are considered preventable. And that’s really been a lot of what I’ve tried to focus on: What can we do to reduce the severity of disease? Or what can we do within the role that we play in maternal health that can reduce that?

We know that there are societal issues absolutely that increase women’s risks and there are public health issues. But there’s a role that hospitals play in helping reduce that risk. Ten years ago, I was on the maternal mortality review committee for the state of California when we started reviewing cases of women who died within hospital systems to see, “Is there a role that we can play in a hospital system to reduce that risk?”

We recognized that sometimes there were conditions that were not recognized early enough so that there was a delay in the care. Sometimes there was a misdiagnosis. Or in some hospital systems, especially rural systems where there aren’t as many resources, sometimes there was the lack of specialists available. So, we’ve identified these risks and said, “We can do something about them.”

Q: You served on a federal panel 20 years ago that published a groundbreaking report identifying racism in health care. It seems as if we could be much further along.

The purpose of that committee was to really answer the question: Do patients receive a different level of care based on race? Looking back, we knew there was something there, but we really didn’t know. And it took months for the committee to come to that agreement, that there was a difference. I mean, that was honestly monumental, because we just didn’t have that level of consensus before. And so just to say “That treatment is unequal and it’s unacceptable” was really profound.

We thought that the 700-page report was going to be a time period where there was going to be tremendous movement, and I think I’ve learned over 20 years that change doesn’t happen quickly, especially when providers and health systems don’t see that they play a role. It’s like … “OK, so maybe it exists, but not for me.”

We all saw George Floyd and how he was treated. And during covid we saw a tremendous difference in who was dying, right? Underrepresented minorities — certainly much higher. It was that culmination that made us realize the elephant in the room. We can’t ignore that this does exist, that there is a difference in how people are treated, even in our health care system.

Q: When addressing racism in health care, you talk about diversifying not just the health care workforce, but also the boardrooms of hospitals and health systems. Why is that important?

At the board level, change is hard. But we all play a role because leadership really helps determine much of what’s carried out. So, to have a leadership that is understanding and representative of the communities they serve, I think it has been demonstrated that we do make a difference.

Carolina Reyes blends medicine with advocacy, having worked on a groundbreaking report identifying racism in health care. She calls for more diversity in the boardrooms of hospitals and health systems.(Rich Pedroncelli for KFF Health News)

Q: As a health care provider, do you have a wish list of policies you’d like the government to take up?

There was tremendous effort around offering preventive health services as a part of what was covered under the Affordable Care Act. And individuals exhaled, finally thinking this is a tremendous win, especially for women in pregnancy. Because we fought for preventive health services to help them have access so they can prepare for their pregnancy. So, for women, this was huge. But now with the Texas federal court ruling that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force didn’t have any authority, it is a tremendous step backward.

We have culturally, linguistically appropriate standards in place, but it’s a matter in terms of how they’re carried out by state and by individual hospital systems. My wish list is that we really do listen to our patients, speak to them in a language of their choice, and provide them written materials in the language of their choice. We don’t fully do that.

Q: You mentioned one Texas ruling on the ACA. What’s your take on the ruling by another Texas judge suspending the abortion pill? And the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade?

As a maternal-fetal medicine specialist who tries to help women plan for pregnancies, those rulings are a tremendous setback.

Q: And what about women of color? Will they find access to abortion services more difficult?

Oh, absolutely. When we speak of underrepresented minorities or those with less resources, they have less resources to then seek the appropriate care. Some women may have the opportunity to go to a different state or seek care elsewhere if their state doesn’t provide it. Many women just don’t have those resources to devote to them and don’t have a choice. So, we will see that disparity widen.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

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