Feds probe LA hospital and treatment of Black women giving birth

The probe into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center comes years after the 2016 death of Kira Dixon Johnson, who died from abdominal bleeding following a cesarean section at that hospital.

Concerns over racial discrepancies in maternal care have prompted the federal government to launch a civil rights investigation into a Los Angeles hospital.

According to ABC News, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is the subject of a Department of Health and Human Services probe examining how it handles Black women who give birth there.

“Maternal health is a priority for the Biden-Harris Administration,” the HHS spokesperson said in a statement, “and one in which the HHS Office for Civil Rights is working on around the country to ensure equity and equality in health care.”

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles is the subject of a Department of Health and Human Services probe examining how it handles the care of Black women giving birth there. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

In response to inquiries about the investigation, a Cedars-Sinai representative said hospital leaders, clinicians and researchers have long been concerned about racial discrepancies in maternity care and have been working to address the issue locally and on state and federal levels.

The spokesperson added that the hospital has made ongoing efforts to address the problem, including giving more than $2.2 million in grants to nonprofits addressing racial disparities in maternal care, hosting annual training sessions on unconscious bias, conducting research to identify racial disparities and collaborating with groups and Black leaders to seek solutions.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that 861 women died in the United States in 2020 due to maternal causes, up from 754 in 2019. More than 80 percent of those fatalities were preventable, with Black, American Indian and Alaska Native women having a two to three times higher risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

According to a March 2023 study released by the National Vital Statistics System, maternal death rates increased in 2021, with Black women continuing to be the most impacted.

It found that non-Hispanic Black women died during and shortly after pregnancy at a rate 2.6 times higher than that of non-Hispanic white women — a difference consistent with other studies.

The HHS investigation comes more than seven years after the April 2016 death of Kira Dixon Johnson at Cedars-Sinai pushed discussions of racial disparities in Black maternal care to the national forefront. She died from abdominal bleeding following a cesarean section, while her baby, Langston Johnson, survived.

Charles Johnson, Kira Johnson’s husband, told ABC News he is glad HHS is carrying out the investigation and treating it seriously, saying it’s been an “extremely long time coming.”

Johnson told ABC in 2019 that once he saw blood in his wife’s catheter after she gave birth to their second son, he begged medical personnel to tend to her, but his cries went unanswered. Ten hours later, she was transported into a surgery room and died from internal bleeding.

“This investigation is a very important step,” Johnson said, ABC reported, “toward accountability, transparency and ultimately an important step in making sure that families from all walks of lives receive the safe, dignified, respectful care that they deserve not only in material health but healthcare as a whole.”

In a medical malpractice lawsuit filed in March 2017 and a civil case brought against the hospital in May 2022, Johnson contended that racism contributed to his wife’s treatment. He noted that both lawsuits have been “resolved,” though he kept the details private.

Johnson collaborated with then-Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., on legislation to help prevent maternal fatalities. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump officially signed it into law. Among other things, the law calls for HHS to grant money to all states to fund review panels to determine why women are dying in childbirth and develop plans for continuing provider education to improve care.

Johnson also established 4 Kira 4 Moms, a nonprofit organization that promotes policies and funding to alleviate the inequities in Black maternal care.

The dedicated father said Cedars-Sinai and other medical facilities nationwide were being held accountable due to his wife’s story and the awareness his family has tried to spread about discrepancies in maternal health care.

“My hope is that this will have an impact not only on what’s happening at Cedars-Sinai,” Johnson said, “but other hospitals across the country.”

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