Morgan Cephas represents the 192nd legislative district in West Philadelphia, the community in which she was born and raised. Now in her third term, Rep. Cephas sits on the House Appropriations, Health, Insurance, and Labor and Industry committees. She also is one of five Democrats serving on the Committee on Committees, which recommends appointments to House standing committees. Rep. Cephas is co-chairwoman of the Women’s Health Caucus and a member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Women. She is a leading sponsor of legislation focused on improving maternal mortality rates in the Commonwealth, as well as issues like equitable housing, improved access to care, and dignity for incarcerated women.*
What led you to pursue political office?
As a lifelong public servant and native of West Philadelphia, during my career I have worked tirelessly to forge cross-sector collaborations and partnerships to solve some of the community’s biggest challenges. So many of the challenges our neighborhoods face, were the same challenges I faced growing up. I was the kid who couldn’t read at grade level while in elementary school. My sisters and I traveled an hour outside of our community to attend a quality school. I grew up surrounded by the epidemic of gun violence back in the 1990s.
As I started my career after graduating from the University of Virginia, I thought I’d become a policy wonk, doing things like research and crafting legislation to address the challenges that still existed in our communities. That was before I worked for six years with Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr.
As his deputy chief of staff, I was part of transformative work happening in the very community where I was born and raised. I started to think about the realities of my life growing up — and how we could change things for the better for the next generation.
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I wasn’t ready to say “yes” when I first was approached to run. It’s said that it takes seven asks for a woman to agree to run for office. We’re always thinking of reasons not to run: “How will it affect my family responsibilities? Don’t I need more experience or an advanced degree? Do I have the ability to really be a change agent for my community?”
Ultimately, it’s all about timing. When the opportunity presented itself, I started to get excited about having a different role at the public policy table. I believed I could have a real impact on the community where I’ve lived and worked for so long.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a minority female legislator?
Philadelphia is a “majority minority” city. Most of our city council members are Black or Brown. Going to Harrisburg and being one of only 10 minority women in the House was a bit of a culture — and gender — shock for me. Additionally, despite being 54% of Pennsylvania’s population, women only make up a quarter of the general assembly.
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As a Black cisgender female coming up into Harrisburg, I understood instantly, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu.” Furthermore, I embrace the advice of the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm who said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair!” So many policies, legislative decisions, and financial policy investments disproportionately impact minority communities — especially minority women. Having a seat at this table of power will ensure those most marginalized in our communities have a voice.
When our legislature is not reflective of what Pennsylvania looks like, we’re not only losing voices at the table; we’re also losing perspective — and consequently losing money and losing lives. It’s not unusual for key House committees to only have one Black female member. For example, I’m the only Black female on Labor and Industry, which handles matters from unemployment compensation to sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
We’re making policy and financial decisions in Harrisburg where women — who again make up half of our state — are not well represented. Women aren’t in positions of power to turn the tide on some of the challenges brought on by COVID-19. These issues not only disproportionately impact Black and Brown women — they impact all women.
How did you become a voice for maternal mortality and health?
Several years ago, I put together a roundtable discussion in Philadelphia for Black women and elected officials. One of the questions raised was: What is Pennsylvania doing about maternal mortality rates?
I personally was not in tune with the national conversation happening at the time on the issue. I acknowledged that I knew little and did a deeper dive into the subject following our discussion. Shortly thereafter, the Philadelphia Commission for Women led by Jovida Hill held a standing-room-only town hall on the subject. I also learned one of my own constituents passed away on a hospital bed giving birth to her baby girl at age 34. I was heartbroken that I hadn’t recognized how this issue was playing out in my own backyard and committed myself to doing more.
A Republican colleague, Rep. Ryan Mackenzie of the 134th District, had already passed legislation to create a maternal mortality review committee in Pennsylvania. During a legislative trip overseas, we spent quality time talking about the issue. Since then, we’ve worked closely together to move as much policy as possible on maternal health — and specifically, maternal mortality.
Could you rank your top goals related to maternal health legislation?
The American Rescue Plan — often called the COVID-19 stimulus package — is allowing states to amend their Medicaid plans to extend coverage for recipients up to a year after giving birth. Rep. Mackenzie and I are working on both sides of the aisle to ensure the expansion happens here in Pennsylvania.**
We also know the critical role that doulas *** and birth workers play in reversing maternal mortality rates through the trusting and supportive relationships they build with patients. But in Pennsylvania, doulas are not licensed, certified, or reimbursed by Medicaid and some private insurance companies. These measures make them ineligible for reimbursements for the critical role they play in the perinatal workforce and also makes them inaccessible for the families that need them most. Given the impact of doulas on health outcomes, it’s essential we create a system where they are recognized, equitably reimbursed, and accessible to our most vulnerable populations. Currently the state is exploring the idea of amending its Medicaid plan to include doulas.
I’m also concerned about COVID’s impact on the mental health of pregnant women, from social isolation to financial strains. I want to make depression — during and after pregnancy — a legislative priority. Pennsylvania has strict rules regulating the exchange of physical health and behavioral health records. As a result, doctors can’t fully access the mental health records of their patients. They may be unaware if a patient has shown early signs of depression or if they’re taking any type of medication that could be adding to that depression. We need to find the right way to share essential information.
** Like Reps. Cephas and Mackenzie, UPMC strongly supports Pennsylvania extending pregnancy-based Medicaid eligibility through a State Plan Amendment.
*** There are many different kinds of doulas. Birthing doulas are trained, non-medical professionals who provide ongoing educational, emotional, and physical support to women during and after delivery.
How can health care organizations like UPMC be of help?
As we work to introduce new legislation related to minority health care issues, we are asked: “What does the data say?” Organizations like UPMC can be invaluable in collecting and sharing data on the communities they serve — from patient numbers to costs of care. It’s important for us to show any economic impact and the rate of return whenever possible.
As a state, we also must identify and celebrate health care organizations like UPMC and Penn Medicine, which are driving innovations like telehealth that are helping to redefine health care delivery while creating more accessible and equitable access points. We need to ensure that we not only invest in the technology, but also in a reimbursement structure that allows and encourages that kind of innovation.
For example, if you give birth in my district and don’t have a vehicle, you need to get on a bus to connect with your doctor. On a good day, that will take at least 45 minutes of travel each way. UPMC now offers programs that allow women to use telehealth and special apps to connect with their doctors for postpartum care. That makes a huge difference in getting appropriate care and can make a difference in saving lives.
What has it been like trying to legislate during the pandemic?
I have to admit it’s been one of the most difficult and heartbreaking times I’ve ever experienced. Working in government, though, has given legislators like me some real opportunities to step in, fill gaps, and make a difference.
As elected officials, we’ve learned that COVID knows no race, no age, no boundary, no district, and especially, no political affiliation. It forced us to see our communities through different lenses. I can speak to the pandemic’s impact on urban constituents, but it’s been just as devastating to the communities of my rural colleagues. We learned to work together on a new level.
I learned that in every crisis, there is opportunity to be found. Right now, that opportunity rests in the $7 billion coming into Pennsylvania as part of COVID recovery efforts — in addition to $3 billion in unanticipated revenue this budget season. We really have to take advantage of these funds and the current political environment to address as many inequities as possible. God forbid that a crisis like this comes around again: We cannot be found as flat-footed as we were at the start of the pandemic.
We all know racial inequalities and health care disparities existed long before COVID-19. But at some point, we have to muster the courage and foresight to address these challenges. I’m convinced the time is now. It’s my hope that we will come out of this stronger and more intentional about what happens in our communities. It’s in our hands.
*This material is presented for informational purposes only, and does not constitute the endorsement by UPMC of any public official, program, or political party, nor the endorsement of UPMC by any public official or political party.