Courtney Darby holds her son, R'Jay Jones, as she talks about postpartum Medicaid expansion at Family Health Center in Laurel, Miss., Tuesday, March 8, 2022. Many mothers in the state cannot afford medical care when their Medicaid coverage ends 60 days after giving birth. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

A committee made up of members appointed by state leaders voted unanimously to recommend that the Legislature extend postpartum Medicaid coverage for new mothers from 60 days to 12 months.

The Mississippi Medical Care Advisory Committee, which is tasked by state law to advise the Division of Medicaid about “health and medical care services,” cast the vote in October. The committee is made up of 11 members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House.

Dr. David Reeves, chairman of the committee and a physician on the Gulf Coast, penned a letter to Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann on Jan. 11. He said the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Division of Neonatal Medicine made a presentation to the committee.

“After consideration and review, with a unanimous vote, the Committee recommends, through legislative action, extending postpartum Medicaid coverage to 12 months. We feel this extension of coverage will be beneficial to both our mothers and babies and supports the pledge we have made to Mississippi’s women and children with the recent Supreme Court decision upholding Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health,” Dr. Reeves wrote.

Mississippi is one of only two states in the nation that has not extended health care coverage for new mothers on Medicaid to 12 months or expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Currently, moms on Medicaid lose their health care coverage 60 days after giving birth.

House Speaker Philip Gunn last year blocked the legislation from going to a vote in the House after the bipartisan bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate. Lawmakers who supported the legislation and health advocates both noted the state’s high rate of maternal and infant mortality as one reason the extension is needed.

Health experts have told legislators that although extension would cost the state about $7 million a year to keep mothers and newborns healthier, the alternative is spending tens of millions more as a result of preterm births and poor health outcomes for mothers and babies.

Gunn has previously said he is waiting on the Division of Medicaid to take a position on extending coverage. Wil Ervin, deputy administrator for health policy for Mississippi Medicaid, told lawmakers in December his agency is not making a recommendation for or against extending postpartum coverage.

A spokesperson for the Division of Medicaid did not immediately respond to questions from Mississippi Today on Friday afternoon. A spokesperson for Gunn also did not respond.

Several bills to extend postpartum coverage have been introduced in the Senate, including one from Medicaid Chairman Sen. Kevin Blackwell.

Rep. Missy McGee, a Republican from Hattiesburg, introduced a bill in the House to extend the health care coverage of new mothers on Medicaid to 12 months. Its fate remains unknown, however, as Gunn has recently reiterated his opposition to postpartum coverage.

McGee said she supports extending the coverage based on what she’s heard from health experts – including pediatricians, neonatologists and emergency medicine doctors from her district – and based on her experiences as a woman and a mother.

“As a woman and as a mother, I couldn’t let this issue pass without advocating it and really trying to push it forward,” McGee said.

She said the return on investment is another reason she supports extension.

Dr. Anita Henderson, a pediatrician and the president of the Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told members of the Senate Study Group on Women, Children and Families in December that the hospital cost for a health baby born full term is around $5,000 to $6,000. For extremely premature babies, that cost can reach $600,000 and even top $1 million –  costs frequently incurred by state Medicaid, which covers about 65% of births in the state.

“If we can invest early in getting babies here healthy then we improve our long-term outcomes, and there are fewer negative outcomes at a cost savings of who knows what to the state. If the average preemie (costs the hospital an average of) $600,000 (from birth to six months), it doesn’t take many of those (being prevented) for the program to pay for itself,” she said.

Mississippi’s pregnancy-related maternal mortality ratio is 33.2 deaths per 100,000 live births, nearly double the national average of 17.3 deaths. Mississippi has the highest infant mortality rate, preterm birth rate and low birthweight rate in the U.S. One in seven babies born here are preterm.

Medical Care Advisory Committee Letter 1.20.23 by Kate Royals on Scribd

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.