Improving access to care in rural America is a key focus of bill approved by House committee.

Congress moved a step closer to enacting legislation that aims to prevent deaths related to childbirth Tuesday, when the Energy and Commerce Committee passed the Maternal Health Quality and Improvement Act with bipartisan support.

In the U.S., deaths occurring from complications of pregnancy or childbirth increased by nearly 27 percent from 2000 to 2014. Today, America’s maternal mortality rate is higher than in Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and every country in Western Europe. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said there is “a need to redouble efforts” to prevent maternal deaths.

Several sections of the bill focus on narrowing geographic and racial disparities, two critical gaps identified in maternal health outcomes. Across rural America, hospitals and maternity healthcare services are disappearing. Today, fewer than half of rural counties have an obstetric unit, creating obstetric deserts that affect 2.4 million women of reproductive age.

“Expectant moms in rural areas should be able to get all the care they need to have a healthy pregnancy and family,” said Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M), who authored many of the bill’s measures directed at the rural communities that make up her district.

Her additions include establishing federal grants for regional networks that increase access to pre and post-natal care, and to expand existing grants for telehealth programs. She also called for better reporting on pregnancy-related deaths, including a mandate for the CDC to report on women’s health according to socio-cultural and geographic contexts that made its way into the E&C bill.

“No matter where you live, families should rest assured they have access to the necessary care to be healthy,” Torres Small said.

The bill’s authors also took at aim at narrowing persistent racial discrepancies in maternal healthcare.

From 2011 – 2015, the maternal mortality rate was three times higher for black women (47.2 per 100,000 live births) than white women (18 per 100,000 live births). Alaskan natives, American Indians, and other ethnic minorities are also disproportionately affected.

“Expectant moms in rural areas should be able to get all the care they need to have a healthy pregnancy and family.”

To reduce racial discrepancies, the House bill calls for new federal training programs that educate health care professionals on implicit bias to reduce and prevent discrimination. It would also establish a program to award money to American medical and nursing schools that provide implicit bias training and other courses that tackle discrimination.

Health trade groups, including the American Hospital Association and American Academy of Family Physicians, endorsed the bill, which now awaits action in the Senate.