The rate of maternal deaths has risen in the U.S. since 2000. Between 2014 and 2016, 51 Pennsylvania women died from complications due to pregnancy, and according to Gov. Tom Wolf, the current rate in Pennsylvania has doubled since 1994.
This prompted the Governor to sign Act 24 into law this week, which creates a 15-person committee to investigate maternal deaths in the commonwealth. The Maternal Mortality Review Committee will include Secretary of Health Rachel Levine or her designee and a variety of doctors, a social worker, a coroner and a health statistitian.
This follows a rash of lawmakers in other states passing similar bills to investigate maternal deaths.
Philadelphia, one of four cities in the country that has its own investigative committeee, found that 27.9 women died per 100,000 births in the city between 2010 and 2012. An investigation from NPR and ProPublica found that 700 U.S. women die every year during childbirth, the worst rate among similarly-developed countries.
Allegheny County Health Director Karen Hacker said there's limited understanding of how many deaths are related to pregnancy, and explained that one of the only concrete ways to know is that death certificates have a spot to mark if a person recently gave birth.
"But otherwise, you get the death certificate and you're not really making the connections to when a birth occured," Hacker said. "So the question of whether you're capturing everything or the reasons for it, my sense is that's one of the reasons for doing this kind of work."
Between 2014 and 2016, there were four reported maternal deaths in Allegheny County, but Hacker said she's not sure if this accurately reflects deaths related to pregnancy because of how data is collected.
"So if it's within a year [of a birth], or within three years, you can easily imagine somebody might not check off that box," she said.
Black women are disproportionately affected by maternal death, Hacker said, and there are still unknowns to why this is happening.
"There's an issue going on, it does seem like it's going up nationally, we want to understand what's happening here in Pennsylvania," she said. "I think the right thing to do is to bring the right experts together to really try to understand the dimensions of the issue."