Save Alabama Birth Centers

By: Rachel Clark

According to a new report by WalletHub earlier this month, Alabama ranks as the worst state in the US to give birth. Many factors go into this rating, including the number of OB/GYNs and midwives per capita, cost of healthcare, cost of childcare, quality of women’s hospitals, maternal mortality, infant mortality, and access to prenatal care. Data reported by the Alabama Department of Health Vital Statistics in 2019 shows only 28 of Alabama’s 67 counties having labor and delivery facilities inside the county. Of those listed, 9 are classified as “Highly Rural” by the Alabama Rural Health Association, 7 are “Rural,” and the other 12 are “Urban.” This means women and families must travel to one of these counties to access care with many women traveling a great distance to do so.

Given our current abysmal rating, birth centers could be part of the solution to our problem. The American Association of Birth Centers (AABC) defines a birth center as “a health care facility for childbirth where care is provided in the midwifery and wellness model. The birth center is freestanding and not a hospital.” Birth centers have been in existence since 1975. The birth center care model and outcomes have been studied since 1989. Time and time again, those studies have proven that the care provided in birth centers is cost-effective, high quality, and safe.

In 2017, the Alabama State Legislature passed a law allowing certified professional midwives (CPMs) to become licensed and practice midwifery in our state. This opened a door for women in counties that do not have a labor and delivery unit to access care in their own homes, provided that they are low-risk and healthy. According to the law passed, CPMs may provide midwifery care in the setting of the client’s choice, except a hospital. Given that there are currently no birth centers open in our state, CPMs only deliver at home at this time. Hopefully, one day soon that will no longer be the case.

There are three birth centers attempting to organize and open across the state: one in Huntsville, one in Birmingham, and one in Greenville. Currently there are no regulations for opening a birth center. However, a few weeks ago, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) decided to propose regulations that would govern those fledgling centers that are attempting to open their doors. These rules are very similar to rules which were repealed by ADPH in 2010 because there were no birth centers in the state. Should these rules pass, it will effectively ensure that they will not open.

Two of those future birth centers are intended to be staffed with CPMs. Across the nation, 50% of all birth centers are staffed with CPMs. The currently proposed regulations state that only certified nurse midwives (CNMs) would be allowed to work in a birth center. Additionally, the proposed regulations place further restrictions on CNMs practicing in birth centers that are not in the requirements for licensure (nor should they be). Barrier to CNM practice is difficult enough without the addition of these proposed rules.

The proposed rules would also make it extremely difficult to open a birth center because building regulations are similar to hospitals or outpatient surgical centers instead of birth centers. Most birth centers around the country are private homes that have been renovated and converted into birth centers. These proposed specifications make it economically impossible and no longer cost-effective. The proposed regulations are not in line with national standards for birth centers as set forth by AABC and their model legislation.

On their website’s home page, ADPH says they “work to promote, protect, and improve your health.” Their self-stated core values are excellence, integrity, innovation, and community. The proposed rules from ADPH regarding birth centers do not meet any of those core values. While regulations to protect the public are vital, these proposed regulations would only serve to limit competition for physicians and hospitals.

It is vital that we as the public, whose interests are supposed to be protected, make our voices heard. We should hold ADPH accountable and ask that they table their current rules in favor of a collaborative effort to create better ones which are more representative of all stakeholders, not just ADPH. On Thursday, August 18, 2022, at 10 a.m., there will be a public hearing regarding these proposed regulations. If you have concerns about these proposed regulations, I highly encourage you to reach out to ADPH. Public comments on the proposed regulations will be open until September 2, 2022.  Correspondence can be addressed to Jacqueline D. Milledge, Bureau of Health Provider Standards, Department of Public Health, PO Box 303017, Montgomery, Alabama, 36130-3017.

By: Rachel Clark