Leaders of organizations representing Black women called on lawmakers to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage and other policies to help expectant mothers and children. Credit: Geoff Pender/Mississippi Today

A panel of lawmakers trying to come up with policies to help women and children post-abortion ban heard a familiar refrain from experts Tuesday: Mississippi ranks worst or near-worst in infant and maternal mortality, poverty, hunger, access to health care and child care and many other pertinent statistics.

“… This means 39% of children in Mississippi belong to households with no full-time working parent,” said Heather Hanna, assistant research professor at the Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center. “… 43% of Black children in Mississippi live in poverty … Women in Mississippi have higher rates of educational attainment than men, yet earn less.”

The disheartening stats from various experts continued for much of the day — 46% of Mississippi children are in single-parent homes. One in five children experienced hunger in the last year. Nine out of 1,000 babies in Mississippi die. In the rural Delta, there are 4,000 children for every one pediatrician — statewide that number drops only to 2,000 per — and many counties have no OB/GYN. Many mothers do not receive proper prenatal or postpartum care. Mississippi has alarming rates of premature, low-weight babies being born.

Young women have problems obtaining or affording long-acting, reversible contraception. The state Health Department is estimating Mississippi will see an additional 5,000 unplanned births a year now that abortions are banned here.

The Senate Study Group on Women, Children and Families opened the first of four planned hearings with an examination of the extent of the problem. The committee was announced by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down longstanding Roe v. Wade and a dormant Mississippi abortion ban on the books subsequently took effect. Hosemann said it’s now incumbent on lawmakers to come up with policies to help mothers and children. House Speaker Philip Gunn has also created a commission with a similar charge.

“As a state we are in the wrong place on a lot of lists,” Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, told the nine-member, bipartisan committee on Tuesday.

Dr. Daniel Edney, director of the state Department of Health, showed lawmakers a chart with a national report card that ranks states on numerous health issues.

“We’re not just 50th,” Edney said. “We’re 50th by a mile. I think if we had 60 states we’d be 60th … The Department of Health is absolutely committed to work with you and do whatever it takes to get us off the bottom.”

Tuesday’s hearing was open to the public and the committee is asking for written testimony from the public, which can be emailed to WCFStudyGroup@senate.ms.gov. The comments will be presented to the full committee.

A large part of the hearing’s audience — many of those who were not lobbyists or government staffers — walked out of the hearing, holding hand-made signs, briefly mid-morning Tuesday to hold a press conference organized by leaders of organizations representing Black women. Black women and babies experience a disproportionate share of the state’s highest-in-the-nation rates of stillbirth, low birth weight, and infant mortality. They said the statistics about the state’s problems are old news, and the title of the press conference was “We are the Data.” They complained about a lack of Black women on the Senate committee — only one of the nine members — and among Tuesday’s presenters.

They want to see some action from lawmakers, and many had come to call on lawmakers to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage for mothers — a subject of much debate in Mississippi over the last year.

“What we’re asking for here is just a right to life,” said Angela Grayson, lead organizer for Black Women Vote Coalition and advocacy and outreach coordinator for The Lighthouse. “The data is here. The data shows that this is good legislation and that that is what we need here in Mississippi for Black women to be able to go through the childbirth experience and not have the unnecessary burdens of inadequate health care.”

In Mississippi, about 60% of births are to women on Medicaid. The Senate in this year’s legislative session attempted to extend standard postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months, an effort to help combat high maternal mortality rates and other health problems for mothers and children. The House shot down the proposal, with House Speaker Philip Gunn linking extension of postpartum coverage to general Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Gunn and other Mississippi Republicans have fought Medicaid expansion under “Obamacare” for years, and Mississippi remains one of 12 states that has not expanded coverage.

On Tuesday, Woodward, Edney and other presenters voiced support for extending postpartum Medicaid coverage.

Mississippi Medicaid Director Drew Snyder, when asked his opinion on extending postpartum Medicaid coverage, appeared to sidestep the question with a lengthy word salad. But he noted that extending postpartum coverage is “a different” discussion from general Medicaid expansion under the ACA and said, “I don’t think it poses long-term sustainability questions like ACA expansion does.”

Snyder advised lawmakers considering postpartum extension: “if you do it, do it because you believe it will help mothers and children, don’t do it because others say you’re being cruel and heartless.”

Sen. Nicole Akins Boyd, R-Oxford, is chair of the new Study Group on Women, Children and Families, which will continue hearings on Wednesday, then on Oct. 25 and 26.

Boyd said part of Woodward’s presentation stood out to her.

“She said that a 20% decrease in low-birth-weight babies at UMMC’s (Newborn Intensive Care Unit) would save about $8 million a year,” Boyd said. “Extending postpartum Medicaid coverage would cost about $7 million, so that would pay for it.”

Mississippi Today staff writer Isabelle Taft contributed to this report.


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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.