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Cuyahoga County to form Women's Health Advisory Council to improve access to care

Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne speaks from a podium inside the atrium at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland on Sept. 26, 2023.
Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence
Ideastream Public Media
Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne said the Women's Health Advisory Council is one step in helping the community live up to its reputation as a world-class health care region.

Cuyahoga County will create a Women's Health Advisory Council to advise on how to improve racial disparities and access issues for women living in the county, County Executive Chris Ronayne announced Tuesday during a press conference at MetroHealth Medical Center on Cleveland's West Side.

Cuyahoga County Council will vote on an ordinance to approve the new advisory council Tuesday night, Ronayne said.

The council will consist of 13 people of varied backgrounds, including medical, legal and health and human services sectors. Ronayne also said that the new group will be formed as quickly as possible pending the county council's approval.

Ronayne was joined at the press conference by members of Cuyahoga County Council, MetroHealth CEO and President Airica Steed and Executive Director for Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights Dr. Lauren Beene, who noted the disparities in health care faced by women in Cuyahoga County, specifically women of color.

"Sadly, we know that access to health care is significantly more difficult for women, particularly Black women, and that Black women experience maternal mortality rates two and a half times than those of white women," Ronayne said.

In 2020, cityLAB of Pittsburgh released a study that ranked Cleveland last in terms of livability for Black women. Cuyahoga Councilmember Meredith Turner noted that a survey of Black women conducted by the nonprofit Enlightened Solutions found that 30% of respondents said they were refused treatment by a health care provider.

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Turner also shared her own personal story of challenges she faced as a patient and Steed noted the impact that failures by the health care system have had on her own family.

"When the word care is removed from health care, when did that happen?" Turner asked during the press conference. "When did it become OK to disregard and ignore a woman of color's pain and experience? Any woman, but in particular women of color. Experiences like mine permeate the health care system. They are the reason women of color suffer in silence, foregoing the medical attention they rightfully deserve."

Cuyahoga County Councilmember Meredith Turner speaks from a podium inside the atrium at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland on Sept. 26, 2023.
Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence
Ideastream Public Media
Cuyahoga County Councilmember Meredith Turner speaks from a podium inside the atrium at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland on Sept. 26, 2023.

Beene, who is a general pediatrician in Cleveland, expressed her concerns for her patients if abortion access is restricted in the state, recalling conversations she had after Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022.

"I couldn't help but think about how I could just see the socioeconomic disparities in health care widening in front of my eyes, and it was only the Monday morning after the Dobbs decision," Beene said.

Hours after Roe fell, a 2019 law went into effect, banning abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected, which is typically at six weeks of pregnancy. That law was blocked by a Hamilton County judge after clinics challenged its constitutionality. Abortion remains legal in Ohio until 22 weeks of pregnancy.

In November, Ohioans will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution.

The advisory council will create a crisis response plan if an abortion ban is imposed, said Ronayne. It will also make spending recommendations for a Cuyahoga County Council-funded grant to the Center for Community Solutions, a nonpartisan think tank focused on solutions to health, social and economic issues in Cleveland and Columbus, Ronayne added.

Councilmember Yvonne Conwell noted the importance of wraparound health care including mental health, reproductive and financial services for women.

"We still face considerable challenges when it comes to health care and reproductive rights because a woman's health care does not just end when she leaves the doctor's office," Conwell said during the press conference. "A woman's health affects her career, her family and her opportunities. And with more new mothers in the workforce last year than in any other year, access to quality health care has never been more important."

Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence is a digital producer for the engaged journalism team at Ideastream Public Media.