Supporting Non-Hospital Birthing Options: Employer Strategies to Improve Quality

May 23rd, 2022
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Maternal infant health outcomes in the U.S. remain the worst among high-income countries, and Black women in the U.S. are nearly three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women are. Additionally, U.S. women of reproductive age are significantly more likely to have problems paying their medical bills or to skip or delay needed care because of costs.

To underscore the high costs disproportionate to the poor maternal health outcomes, the cost of maternity care represents American employers’ second-highest annual health care expenditure – $1 in every $5. Faced with unacceptable results, employers are looking for pathways to improve maternal health care quality, affordability and the overall patient experience.

Improving Quality and Lowering Costs

Consumer surveys have shown that more patients are seeking non-hospital, community-based childbirth options, such as midwives, doulas and birth centers. This is particularly true for birth participants of color who are looking for alternatives to the hospital-physician childbirth experience.

Recent CDC 2020 vital statistics data mirror what we have seen from consumer surveys. Although overall births declined, in 2020 the number of births in birth centers nearly doubled.  This is a significant indication that more women want choice in their maternity care team and care location and that more families, when given a choice, are seeking a non-hospital childbirth option.

Non-hospital maternity care options can help to address the problem of high-cost, low-quality care. Evidence shows the use of midwives improves overall maternal and infant health and decreases the cost of maternity care. In fact, research shows that collaborative care led by certified nurse midwives can result in 22% fewer primary C-sections. It also helps address a growing shortage of perinatal health providers. Despite these benefits, however, certified nurse-midwives are vastly underutilized, delivering only 9% of babies nationally.

A birth center is a midwife-led childbirth facility that offers individuals and families a more natural, lower intervention and less medicalized childbirth experience. Birth centers are freestanding facilities and separate from acute obstetric or newborn care where care is provided in the midwifery and wellness model of care. Birth centers typically have relationships with other community health providers and arrangements with other facilities, such as hospitals, for transfers to other levels of care when needed.

The CMS Strong Start program demonstrated that women who received prenatal care in birth centers had better outcomes and lower costs. This included lower rates of:

Additionally, costs were more than $2,000 lower per mother-infant pair during birth and the following year for women who received prenatal care in birth centers.

How Purchasers Can Support Non-Hospital Options

Employers know that improving maternal health outcomes in the U.S. and reducing disparities will require changes to the existing system of care to make it more patient centered. Here are three ways employers can influence the health system and health plan leaders’ perspectives to address the barriers preventing birth center expansion, collaboration between hospitals and birth centers and access to midwives:

In response to the lack of comprehensive, coordinated care and the overmedicalization of childbirth PBGH has developed several strategies to help employers impact their maternity marketplace.

Telehealth Providing Critical Pregnancy Support During Pandemic

April 20th, 2020
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Telehealth has emerged as a vital tool for helping expecting mothers and clinicians manage pregnancy in the time of COVID-19.

That was the overarching take away from a recent webinar on maternity issues and the COVID-19 pandemic held by Pacific Business Group on Health and co-hosted by the Washington Health Care Authority and Washington Health Alliance. Participants included employers who help cover the costs of about 70% of all births in Washington state.

Telehealth’s ability to regularly connect pregnant women and their doctors has become essential in the face of the need to practice social distancing, which keeps expectant moms at home, employers said. An audio-visual link becomes particularly useful as mothers approach their due date or face the questions and concerns that inevitably follow birth.

According to employers, a growing number of health plans are making changes in telehealth coverage due to the pandemic, including waiving costs for patients who access care this way.

Ensuring that both payers and providers continue to support and expand telehealth services after the pandemic eases will be important, they added. On April 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a $200 million program to help non-profit providers establish telehealth services to better connect with patients.

Adjusting to the New Normal

Beyond increased use of telehealth, employers said the epidemic has resulted in a small percentage of pregnant women (5-10%) requesting transfers to birthing centers to avoid the risks of COVID-19 infection by delivering at a hospital. While most women will still deliver in a hospital setting, the current crisis has underscored the need to leverage all available maternity assets in our communities.

Developing a better understanding of how health benefit designs can create incentives for giving birth in settings outside the hospital, when appropriate, will be important for the future, employers said. Some webinar participants suggested that designating specific medical centers or alternative care sites as maternity centers could reduce risk of infection.

Employers also indicated that innovative solutions are needed to provide socially isolated expectant moms and new parents with venues for learning and reestablishing a sense of community. Possible options could include weekly education and Q&A sessions via Facebook Live or regular forums for discussing pregnancy-related issues that could be established through an employer’s human resources department. Group prenatal classes not only engage patients in their care and improve quality, these types of resources provide expectant mothers with necessary support from both peers and providers during this vulnerable time.

Looking Ahead: New Payment Models

Virtually all webinar participants agreed that the current fee-for-service payment structure constrains the way providers can deliver care, and that alternate ways of paying clinicians who provide maternity care are long overdue. New models are needed to support high-quality care that puts the patient’s needs first. Instead of having to ask themselves “can I bill for this,” providers could focus on simply delivering care in the most effective and patient-centered way possible.

Webinar participants echo what PBGH has been consistently hearing from patients and employers: the COVID-19 epidemic is creating an important catalyst for changes across health care and barriers to adopting telehealth more broadly may finally be coming down.