shannon-jones-headshotEach year in Ohio, we lose an unacceptably high number of babies who die before reaching their first birthday. Through my work as Chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and Co-Chair of the Ohio Commission on Infant Mortality, I have become sobered by the many saddening statistics which further cement Ohio’s status as an incredibly sick state.

September is Infant Mortality Awareness Month, and this annual observance provides a great opportunity for all Ohioans to learn more about our state’s unacceptable rate of infant death. By way of background, a state’s infant mortality rate (IMR) is defined by the number of babies who die during their first year of life per 1,000 live births. In 2014 alone, 955 Ohio babies died before their first birthday, ranking us 45th in the nation.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, Ohio had an overall IMR of 6.8 in 2014. Even more shocking is the fact that African American babies in our state are dying at unfathomable rates. In 2014, the IMR for African American babies was 14.3. That is more than double the overall IMR and nearly triple the IMR of white babies at 5.3. This blatant racial disparity is inexcusable and a clear indicator that our systems are failing to adequately serve the people of Ohio. This gross inequity demands outrage from all of us… it is worthy of deep introspection, vigorous debate and unrelenting action to change the system that is failing too many Ohio families.

So how do we ensure that our babies live longer and improve our return on investment when it comes to healthcare? At the state and local level, agencies and community stakeholders are making progress in raising awareness and addressing the primary causes of infant mortality –preterm birth, low birth weight and sleep-related deaths. Yet still, the numbers hardly budge. There is a clear disconnect between the investments we’re making and the people we’re trying to impact. Ohio is home to some of the greatest clinical healthcare in the world – the Cleveland Clinic, six free standing children’s hospitals, award-winning regional hospital systems and the top health care research and training institutions. Even so, despite outstanding clinical care, Ohio still has horrible outcomes that are made worse by the significant racial disparity that prevails.

Solving this problem will require coordinated, comprehensive system change before Ohio begins to notice substantial progress. We cannot “program” our way out of a high infant mortality rate. In Ohio, we have lots of programs – many of them are good – yet the overall outcomes don’t budge. Why? Because the system is still one built in silos. We have to get serious about challenging this existing system if we are to see broad-based change.

The Commission on Infant Mortality focused much of its efforts on understanding the system challenges, barriers to change and possible reforms. Senate Bill 332 (S.B. 332), which I co-sponsored with Senator Charleta Tavares (D-Columbus), is the continuation of that effort, and calls for the implementation of many of the recommendations of the Commission. We don’t need another good program – we need a transparent and accountable system that is designed to meet the needs of Ohio’s most vulnerable moms and babies where they are.

Components of S.B. 332 reflect four major themes to combat our state’s abysmal infant mortality rate – improvements in the collection and sharing of data, building on proven interventions, health system improvements and addressing the social determinants of health. Infant mortality is a multifaceted, generational problem that reflects the condition of communities as wholes. Changes are needed both inside and outside the health care system, and at the state and local levels, to address and remove barriers that prevent too many of Ohio’s children from celebrating their first birthdays. We need a system of transparency and shared objectives, and we need accountability to ensure that everyone is moving in the right direction.

The combined efforts of the legislature, local leaders, clinical experts and many others are key to addressing such a complex problem. It has been extremely encouraging to see the coalition of stakeholders committed to saving babies continue to grow. I am confident that S.B 332 will lead the way to better health outcomes statewide and the celebration of more first birthdays in Ohio. Indeed, our moms, babies and taxpayers deserve better results. As a mother and a community leader, I will never stop fighting to change our state’s path and make us one of the healthiest in the nation.

Senator Shannon Jones represents Ohio’s 7th Senate District, which encompasses all of Warren County and portions of Butler and Hamilton Counties.  She currently presides as the Chair of the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services. To learn more, go to www.OhioSenate.gov/Jones.