Dr. Samuel Cook

Dr. Samuel Cook, a resident at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on May 2, 2024, about the need for more support for HBCU schools of medicine.

Credit: Screenshot from U.S. Senate webcast

WASHINGTON — Doctors on Thursday urged Congress to pass legislation addressing the disproportionately high rates of maternal mortality throughout the country and to lower barriers that have hindered people of color from becoming medical professionals.

During a hearing in the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a panel of five medical professionals detailed health disparities for communities of color, including higher rates of maternal mortality.

“Research consistently demonstrates that patients from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds experience better outcomes when treated by health care providers who share their racial and ethnic backgrounds,” said Dr. Yolanda Lawson, president of the National Medical Association and an OBGYN in Texas. “In short, patients can have better health outcomes when their doctors look like them.”

“Yet, Black doctors remain vastly underrepresented,” Lawson added.

Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, ranking member on the committee and a doctor, noted that “African American physicians account for only 8% of all physicians despite comprising 13.6% of the population.”

Cassidy said that reducing maternal mortality has been a top issue for him during his time in Congress and said “it’s important to acknowledge that this issue disproportionately affects African Americans.”

California Democratic Sen. Laphonza Butler testified that the “United States has the highest rate of maternal mortality among high-income nations.”

“Within recent years, thousands of women have lost their lives due to pregnancy-related causes,” Butler said. “And over the past decade, while the birth rate in this country has declined by roughly 20%, maternal mortality rates have steadily risen.”

She implored the committee to debate and approve the so-called Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, legislation introduced last year by New Jersey Democratic Sen. Senator Cory Booker, Illinois Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood and North Carolina Democratic Rep. Alma Adams. It currently has 31 co-sponsors in the Senate and 193 in the House.

“This legislation is not just about the life and death of Black women — its enactment will improve birthing outcomes for all women,” Butler said.

HELP Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, indicated the panel would take up the legislation in the months ahead.

Sanders also said Congress should also look at increasing funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC; increasing class size at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to increase Black representation in the health care workforce; and making medical schools tuition-free to reduce the mountains of student loan debt that can serve as an obstacle to more people of color becoming doctors.

Thursday’s hearing coincided with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s release of new maternal mortality data, showing that 817 women died during 2022 — a decrease from the 1,205 deaths the year before, but roughly in line with the 861 deaths from 2020.

The maternal mortality rate for Black women was 49.5 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to 19 for white women, 16.9 for Hispanic women and 13.2 for Asian women.

Funding for HBCU medical schools

Dr. Samuel Cook, a resident at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta said during the hearing that medical students of color “sacrifice our physical, mental, spiritual and financial wellbeing to be the change in the medical field we so desperately seek.”

“So now we ardently advocate for the reintroduction of legislation which would specifically fund and protect the growth of HBCU medical schools,” he said.

Cook told the committee that the exorbitant cost of medical school is “the greatest impediment in recruiting Black and brown doctors to our workforce.” He currently holds nearly $400,000 in student loan debt.

Dr. Brian Stone, president of Jasper Urology Associates in Jasper, Alabama, told senators there are “serious challenges” that must be addressed in access to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, education for Black and brown students.

“There’s a wealth of data showing better health outcomes when Black patients have Black physicians. And this applies across different cultures,” Stone said. “This is because when you have cultural connectivity, you have better communication, you have shared experiences and you can overcome the mistrust that has developed over the decades.”

Stone said his home state of Alabama has a population of about 4.8 million people, of whom about 25.8% are Black. “Yet we only have 7% of the physician workforce that’s Black.”

Stone told the committee that there’s a huge need to replace retiring physicians. And he said that making several changes, like providing mentors early and reducing the financial burden, can help to bridge the gap that’s forming.

“Currently, we have about 71,000 physicians retiring per year for the past few years. We only graduated 21,000 medical students per year,” Stone said. “And if you follow the mathematics, you see where we’re going to end up. We’re going to need some very creative ideas to get us out of this situation.”


This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.