Bills could help thousands of pregnant women, young children in Butler County

A federally funded food and health care assistance program that aids thousands of pregnant women and young children in Butler County could get a boost from a pair of federal bills.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is backing a pair of bills designed to provide more funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and beef up the collaboration among programs.

These bills that support WIC, a domestic program for pregnant and postpartum women, infants and children up to 5 years old, can save lives, he said.

“We know that access to WIC and good nutrition can help reduce the risk of heart disease, minimize complications during pregnancy, and reduce the risk of low birth weight — a leading factor in infant mortality,” Brown said. “We need to make sure more Ohio women get that care.”

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Maternal and infant mortality disproportionately impacts African-Americans more than other race. Nationally, black mothers die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Ohio, black women died at more than 2 1/2 times the rate of white women, according to a 2019 Ohio Department of Health report. Among all deaths that happened in Ohio from 2012 to 2016, the health department reports 57 percent were likely preventable.

Food insecurity is a big factor in the maternal and infant mortality rates, said Butler County WIC Director Cindy Meale.

Butler County WIC assists about 7,400 residents and has a caseload goal of 7,815, but Meale said there are more than 15,000 county residents potentially eligible for services. Butler County WIC assisted close to 9,000 a few years ago, she said.

“Hunger exists in our county,” she said. “Over 16,000 children in Butler County are food insecure. WIC can positively impact this number.”

Shared Harvest Foodbank Executive Director Terry Perdue said WIC and other safety-net programs help families in crisis for immediate food and health care needs. It’s a first step to attain self-sufficiency, he said.

“Oftentimes, the complexity of navigating the various programs that are intended to help, can actually be a barrier for people in poverty,” said Shared Harvest Foodbank Executive Director Terry Perdue. “Community-based, collaborative efforts are necessary to reach members of the community who experience hardships that prevent them from being able to access support that they need and are eligible for.”

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The first of the bills is the Community Access to Resources and Education for Families, or CARE for Families, Act. It would create a grant program for local WIC agencies and clinics to increase the number of Ohioans in the WIC program. The additional money would help agencies bring WIC staff into the community, better connect WIC to other community health providers, and facilitate referrals between WIC and health care providers.

Congress allocates funding for WIC, which is distributed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the 90 WIC agencies, including the 50 states, the District of Columbia, 34 tribal organizations and U.S. territories. For fiscal year 2019, Congress appropriated nearly $5.7 billion to WIC, of which Ohio received $140.6 million, according to the USDA..

The second bill, the WIC Enrollment Collaboration Act, is designed to strengthen relationships between Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid and WIC so more WIC-eligible pregnant women and young children can be enrolled during a critical stage of development.

Butler County's caseload has declined over the past three years, Meale said, but she's working to strengthen local relationships to reach potentially eligible WIC participants. A new WIC system being implemented will allow the Butler County WIC staff to enroll residents off site, such as at schools or daycares, Meale said. Also, the program, which operates at four Primary Health Solutions locations in Butler County, has remained flexible for residents who can come in to the offices with or without an appointment.

“Leading this program, my philosophy is to be as flexible as we can to for participants that are applying,” said Meale, who’d welcome more assistance from through legislation. “My whole directive is to serve everybody that walks thorugh the door, whether they have an appointment or not. My staff is very compassionate about that, and they’re on board with that, but I think it’s really important to not run your program so rigidly because you don’t know what kinds of struggles people have coming in, and when the can be there. They may have issues try to make it on time.”

These WIC-support bills come several months after Brown introduced the Healthy Start Reauthorization Act, which recently passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and moves for a vote in the full Senate. The Healthy Start Act pushes to reduce infant mortality by identifying and supporting communities with infant mortality high rates, or increasing rates above the national average.

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