(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi moms could soon lose access to healthcare at a critical period after giving birth after a measure that would extend their Medicaid coverage died in the state House of Representatives.

The Republican-led effort to prolong new mothers’ Medicaid coverage for a year passed overwhelmingly in the state Senate last month. Lawmakers who supported the bill and health advocates noted the state’s high rate of maternal and infant mortality as one reason the extension is needed.

The House let the measure die without a vote on Wednesday, likely meaning that the 60% of pregnant women in Mississippi who are on Medicaid will lose their health insurance just two months after giving birth—a period when they are still at substantial risk of fatal complications from pregnancy.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, a staunch opponent of Medicaid expansion, told Mississippi Today that he viewed the bill in that light.

“I think there were different views on whether this expands Medicaid,” Gunn said. “I have been very clear that I oppose Medicaid expansion, and that I believe we should be working to get people off Medicaid as opposed to adding more people to it.”

But the measure would not have added anyone to Medicaid in Mississippi. It would simply have allowed pregnant women, who already qualify for Medicaid, to get healthcare for 10 additional months. 

Requests for comment from Rep. Joey Hood, chairman of the House Medicaid Committee, were not returned. He told the Associated Press legislators would revisit the issue next session. 

Sponsor Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, framed the legislation as a way of protecting children in the state with the country’s highest infant mortality rate.

“All I’m saying is we’re protecting (children) in the womb,” Blackwell said during debate over the bill earlier this year. “Let’s protect them out of the womb for up to a year.” 

Blackwell also noted that Mississippi is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and uphold its law prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks. He described his legislation as pro-life. On Wednesday afternoon, he told Mississippi Today he was disappointed that the measure had died for the second year in a row.

“While infants are still covered under Medicaid, mothers lose coverage after 60 days,” he wrote in a statement. “All this bill would’ve done was continue that coverage for a total of 12 months.”

Gunn, who is also adamantly anti-abortion, when asked about Senate Republicans pitching the measure as pro-life, deflected and referred again to Medicaid expansion.

“Our position on expansion is clear,” Gunn said.

Maternal and children’s health advocates and physicians in Mississippi had been optimistic that the bill would pass, ensuring moms covered by Medicaid would be able to access vital health care during the first year of their baby’s life.

On Wednesday, they were frustrated and angry. 

“I feel as if they are playing politics with women’s lives,” said Cassandra Welchlin, co-convener and state lead of Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable. The organization had lobbied for SB 2033 and Welchlin thought it had the votes to pass. 

“A failure that will deny mothers the health care they need,” one of the bill’s co-authors Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, wrote on Twitter

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government required Medicaid coverage for pregnant women and other beneficiaries to last as long as the public health emergency. But that declaration, last extended in January, could end as early as April 16

A 2019 health department report on maternal mortality in the state found that nearly 40% of all pregnancy-related deaths in Mississippi from 2013 to 2016 occurred more than six weeks postpartum. Heart conditions and hypertensive disorders were the two most common causes of death. Black women in Mississippi are three times likelier than white women to die of pregnancy-related complications. 

Dr. Anita Henderson, President of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said pediatricians, obstetricians and family practice doctors would continue advocating for postpartum Medicaid extension.

“Extending coverage to 12 months would help save lives by providing mothers access to much-needed healthcare services, including treatment of postpartum depression, asthma, diabetes and other medical conditions that put mothers and their babies at risk,” she wrote in a statement to Mississippi Today. 

Some legislators also questioned Gunn’s handling of the bill.

“He’s one man,” said Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, a member of the House Medicaid Committee. “Why does he not let the process work?”

That point stood for Medicaid expansion in general, Scott added. 

“He should not have one-man veto power when you’ve got poll after poll out there that 60%-plus people say they want to expand Medicaid.”

Mississippi is one of 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act. But many of these states, almost all in the South, have passed laws to ensure Medicaid coverage lasts for at least six months after birth. Florida, Georgia and Tennessee did so in 2021. 

This year, Alabama is planning to extend coverage to a year postpartum. 

On Wednesday, Welchlin said she was thinking about the Black and brown Mississippians she has met in the course of advocating for women’s healthcare access. Many of them are working moms who don’t get healthcare through their jobs and can’t afford to buy it on their own. And she was thinking especially about the Black women in Mississippi who have died of pregnancy-related complications at disproportionately high rates.

“They’re gone, and then their children are left with family members,” she said.

Reporter Geoff Pender contributed to this story.

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Isabelle, an Atlanta native, covers health as part of Mississippi Today’s community health team. Prior to joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Biloxi Sun Herald and a Report for America corps member.