The Health and Human Services Department is investigating Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for civil rights violations related to its maternal health services, the regulator confirmed Wednesday.
“Maternal health is a priority" for President Joe Biden's administration "and one in which the HHS Office for Civil Rights is working on around the country to ensure equity and equality in healthcare,” a department spokesperson wrote in an email.
HHS declined to provide further details on the ongoing investigation, which the Los Angeles Times first reported Tuesday.
The case stems from the 2016 death of Kira Johnson, a Black woman who died about 12 hours after undergoing a cesarean section at the Cedars-Sinai Health System facility. Her husband, Charles Johnson, filed civil rights and malpractice lawsuits against the health system last year, alleging a "culture of racism" at the hospital contributed to his wife's death. Cedars-Sinai settled both cases.
“The care she was provided was below that which is provided to other women who are not Black. She would be alive today if she was a white woman,” Johnson's civil rights complaint alleged.
Cedars-Sinai did not respond to questions about the HHS investigation and instead provided a general statement summarizing its efforts to address racial and ethnic health disparities and other issues.
“Cedars-Sinai clinicians, leaders and researchers have long been concerned with national disparities in Black maternal health, and we are proud of the work we’ve done (and continue to do) to address these issues in Los Angeles as well as at the state and national levels,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.
The lawsuits over Johnson’s death spurred renewed advocacy to improve maternal health outcomes for Black women and a debate over recent policies enacted in California, such as lifting lawsuit damage caps for patients who are negligently injured in healthcare settings. Charles Johnson has testified before Congress and state legislators in support of new initiatives.
Maternal deaths more than doubled from 1999 to 2019, and Black women died during pregnancy at the highest rates, researchers from Boston-based Mass General Brigham wrote in JAMA last week. The study detailed disparities in excessive bleeding, infection, heart disease, suicide and drug overdose and concluded that structural racism in society and the healthcare system plays a significant role in these variations.
In 2021, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that Black women were three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women and have experienced the fastest escalation in mortality between 2007 and 2014.
HHS characterized the enforcement action as part of the administration’s commitment to closing disparities in maternal health, which includes new health equity requirements from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and a “birthing-friendly” designation for hospitals with acceptable quality and safety outcomes.