Agency tasked with saving lives of mothers, babies is launched

As the board of New Jersey’s new Maternal and Infant Health Innovation Authority sat down for its inaugural meeting Wednesday morning in Trenton, social media was buzzing with the story. Another educated, well-off Black woman had lost her life to childbirth: former Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader Krystal Anderson had died of sepsis days after delivering a stillborn baby, according to multiple news outlets.  

“Talk about this being personal. This is very personal to us” as Black women, said board member Shakira Abdul-Ali, a consultant who previously led the city health department in Trenton. “It is of daily concern,” she said, and one that underscores the need for the authority’s work.  

The Health Innovation Authority — a quasi-independent agency created by law last year — is charged with continuing New Jersey’s work to improve maternal health outcomes, which lag the nation at large, particularly for women of color. Its initial challenge is to create a facility in Trenton that will house a clinical birthing facility and wraparound services and develop policies to undertake research related to this work.  

An unparalleled authority  

“This new authority ensures that the lifesaving work of prioritizing the health of New Jersey’s mothers and babies will continue long after our administration and will permanently make our state a national leader in maternal health,” said Tammy Murphy, who as wife of Gov. Phil Murphy has prioritized maternal health through her Nurture NJ platform. Murphy — who dropped her bid to replace embattled U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez earlier this week — joined the meeting to welcome the board of the authority, which she said is the only of its kind in the nation.  

More than 25 in 100,000 women died in childbirth from 2018 through 2021 in New Jersey, according to federal data, with the risk for Black women nearly seven times what it was for white mothers. While maternal mortality has declined here in recent years, New Jersey’s rate is still worse than the national average and higher than neighboring Pennsylvania and New York. 

“The statistics are terrible,” she Lisa Asare, a maternal health expert and former deputy commissioner with the state Department of Human Services who was quickly tapped by the new board to serve as the authority’s president and CEO. “We must do better.”  

Recognizing Tammy Murphy’s work

Describing herself as a wife, mother and daughter of West African immigrants, Asare said the work of the authority is personal to her. “I have skin in the game,” she said, looking at her children and husband in the audience. “We can only move forward,” she said, praising Tammy Murphy for her leadership on this issue. “We could not have asked for a better champion.”  

Tammy Murphy said later that Asare’s position as president and CEO of the new authority would be elevated to a cabinet position, meaning she would have a direct and regular connection to the governor, like commissioners at key agencies. Asare’s salary was not available Wednesday, but cabinet officials are now paid $175,000 annually, which is slated to go up to $210,000 later this year.  

While wealth, education level and access to health care can significantly impact birthing outcomes, studies have shown that even wealthy Black women face higher maternal mortality risks than their white counterparts. Tennis player Serena Williams nearly died from complications following the birth of her child in 2018, attracting some new attention to the issue. Krystal Anderson’s death appears to show how much work still needs to be done.  

‘Today’s board meeting marks the culmination of years of work by countless individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving maternal health across the state.’ — First lady Tammy Murphy

Board member Dr. Damali Campbell-Oparaji, an associate professor of reproductive health at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, and a leader of the New Jersey Black Women Physicians Association, agreed the center should provide birthing and social services and serve as a hub for policy development. But she also urged the new authority to take on underlying issues, like racism in the health care system — something Tammy Murphy has conceded is a primary cause of the disparate outcomes.  

‘New beginning’

“We need implicit-bias training,” Campbell-Oparaji said, “and it can’t be a check box.”   

The 13-member board comprises six public members — a mix of health care and social service providers and policy experts, many of whom are Black women — and representatives from seven state agencies, including the New Jersey Economic Development Authority which is overseeing the creation of the center. A location for the facility is expected to be announced soon, officials said.  

“Today’s board meeting marks the culmination of years of work by countless individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving maternal health across the state,” Tammy Murphy said, while also a “new beginning.”  

In addition to solidifying the location, the EDA expects to announce a number of anchor tenants for the maternal health center this spring, a representative said. In March 2023 the agency started its search for lead tenants, with a focus on clinical birthing services, an academic institution and a social-service organization.  

These lead tenants will then recruit additional partners, based in part on the more than 75 responses the agency got to various calls for interest over the past three years, they said. To date, the EDA has spent approximately $1.5 million on this work, according to officials, and the state has more than $75 million set aside for construction.