UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum has awarded $1.4 million in maternal health grants and will provide pro bono services to five community organizations aimed at improving maternal health outcomes and increasing healthcare access for underserved populations, the company announced last month.

Ladies of Hope Ministries mission is a global organization formed, directed, and run by women of color dedicated to meeting fundamental requirements such as secure shelter and food, employment and long-term community sustainability, as well as spiritual and existential needs. Optum awarded the organization with $200,000 to give doula training, certification, and delivery care to pregnant women who are currently or have been incarcerated.

“Optum is committed to addressing the nation’s maternal health crisis, which is having a significant impact on underserved and vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Janice Huckaby, chief medical officer, Maternal-Child Health, Optum. “By partnering with organizations deeply rooted in the communities they serve, we help improve the health of mothers and newborns and raise awareness about the importance of maternal health and racial disparities in health care.”

In 2015, the Ladies of Hope Ministries organization was established. After founder Topeka K. Sam was released from prison in 2015, she wanted to have a space to address everything she had witnessed and learned while there. She felt compelled to amplify the faces and voices of women in jail in order to raise awareness about women’s incarceration and post-incarceration concerns along with transforming the criminal justice system. Topeka had expressed her delight and gratitude at the fact that the organization’s work in addressing women and girls harmed by incarceration had been recognized.

Black women in the United States have suffered poor maternal health outcomes, with disproportionately high rates of death during pregnancy and childbirth. They have higher rates of poor health outcomes and maternal mortality due to sociocultural and health-care system factors, as well as the fact that they are more likely to face barriers to sufficient care and racial discrimination throughout their lives.

“We have a lot of work to do across this country around women’s health and maternal health. If we don’t prioritize women’s health, we will continue to see poor outcomes in maternal health. If birthing people don’t have access to the services that they need, if they are uninsured, if they are under insured, if they are not able to access employment opportunities, if they are experiencing racism or t don’t have public transportation, it all impacts outcomes especially for Black women’’ said Callie Chamberlain, a Optum’s social responsibility director and is on the board of Ladies of Hope.

Ladies of Hope Ministries are looking to support women who have been specifically impacted by the criminal legal system, who oftentimes do have some of the worst health disparities and may not have support coming out of the system. The organization wants to ensure that women have the well-rounded support they need, and ensure that while they’re pregnant, a doula provides them with emotional and physical support through tangible advocacy and education during their experience of birth and postpartum which will also hopefully address some of those disparities that are seen across with their communities.

The grant that is provided by Optum will be used to launch the doula program, which will train women who have been or will be affected by the criminal justice system to become doulas. The goal is for people to feel supported throughout the process, so they can be confident that they will have access to resources such as mental health support, entrepreneurial support, and ideally, the ability to start their own business once they have exited the criminal justice system, allowing them to support their own communities.

The pandemic of COVID-19 has brought racial injustice and disparity to the foreground of public health. It has demonstrated that health equality is still a work in progress, as COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women within numerous racial minority groups, putting them at greater risk of becoming ill and dying as a result of the virus.

“We’re starting to see disparities widen in a way that is affecting specifically people of color. And I think you saw that with the virus itself, right, disproportionately impacting our communities. And then same thing for the vaccines. There is a lot of historical mistrust that exists between communities of color and the medical industry, rightfully so. All those things that had existed before are just being split open at this moment,” Callie Chamberlain expressed.