Complications for Pregnant Veterans Have Doubled, Report Finds — ProPublica


Over the past decade, the rate of veterans suffering severe pregnancy complications has risen dramatically, a new federal report found.

Veterans have raced to the hospital with dangerous infections, kidney failure, aneurysms or blood loss. They’ve required hysterectomies, breathing machines and blood transfusions to save their lives. Between 2011 and 2020, 13 veterans died after such complications.

The report found that among people getting health care benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, the rate of severe complications nearly doubled during that time, from about 93 per 10,000 hospitalizations in 2011 to just over 184 per 10,000 hospitalizations in 2020. Black veterans had the highest rates.

The report, which was put together by the Government Accountability Office, also made recommendations for reducing the problem, which focus on conducting more routine screenings throughout pregnancy and in the postpartum period.

“It is imperative that the VA help ensure veterans have the healthiest pregnancy outcomes possible,” the report said, highlighting the increasing number of veterans using the agency’s maternity benefits as well as the troublesome complication rates faced by Black women.

The report’s findings are an unfortunate trend, said Alyssa Hundrup, director of health care at the GAO. The office analyzed data on 40,000 hospitalizations related to deliveries paid for by the VA. It captures a time period before 21 states banned or greatly restricted abortion and the military was thrust into a political battle over whether it would pay for active service members to travel for abortion care if a pregnancy was a risk to their health.

Hundrup, who led the review, said the analysis included hospital records from days after delivery to a year postpartum. The report was mandated after Congress passed a law in 2021 that aimed to address the maternal health crisis among veterans. The law led to a $15 million investment in maternity care coordination programs for veterans.

The report recommended that the VA analyze and collect more data on severe complications as well as data on the mental health, race and ethnicity of veterans who experience complications to understand the causes behind the increase and the reasons for the disparity. The report also states that oversight is needed to ensure screenings are being completed.

Studies show there’s a connection between mental health conditions and pregnancy-related complications, VA officials said.

The report recommended expanding the screening questions that providers ask patients at appointments to glean more information about their mental health, including anxiety and PTSD symptoms. It urged the VA to review the data more regularly.

“You don’t know what you don’t measure,” Hundrup said in an interview with ProPublica.

The VA health system, which historically served a male population, does not provide maternity care at its facilities. Instead, the agency has outsourced maternity care. But when patients were treated by those providers, the VA failed to track whether they were getting screened for other health issues and mental health problems.

Officials hope the improved data collection will help the VA study underlying issues that may lead to complications. For example, do higher rates of anxiety have a connection to rates of high blood pressure in pregnant people?

VA officials are working with a maternal health review committee to monitor the data as it is gathered. The agency recently conducted its first review of data going back five years about pregnancy-related complications, said Dr. Amanda Johnson, acting deputy chief officer of the VA’s Office of Women’s Health, who is overseeing the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

The VA has created a dashboard to monitor pregnant veterans’ health outcomes. The VA’s data analysis team will also examine the impact of veterans’ ages on complications and whether they differ for people who live in urban and rural areas.

VA officials will begin to review mental health screenings conducted by maternal care coordinators in March. The coordinators advocate for veterans, helping them between health care visits, whether their providers are inside or outside the VA.

Johnson said that reducing racial and ethnic disparities is a priority for the agency. In 2018, ProPublica published “Lost Mothers,” a series that shed light on the country’s maternal health crisis. Studies have shown that in the general population, Black women are three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. While deaths made up only a small portion of the bad outcomes for Black veterans cited in the report, VA care could not spare them from elevated rates of severe complications. Johnson said the maternal health crisis also persists within the VA.

“There is a disparity,” Johnson said. “We are not immune to that.”

Research shows pregnant people who have used the VA’s coverage have higher rates of trauma and mental conditions that can increase their risks of complications and bad outcomes.

This may be because many people who join the military enter it having already faced trauma, said Dr. Laura Miller, a psychiatrist and the medical director of reproductive mental health at the VA.

She said veterans with PTSD have higher rates of complications such as preeclampsia, a potentially fatal condition related to high blood pressure, gestational diabetes and postpartum depression. If untreated during pregnancy, depression also increases the likelihood of preterm birth and lingering problems for babies.

Hundrup said she hopes this proactive work will improve maternal health.

“We want these numbers trending in the other direction,” Hundrup said.


March 5, 2023: This story originally gave an incorrect title for Dr. Amanda Johnson. She is the acting deputy chief officer, not the acting head, of the VA’s Office of Women’s Health.

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