Speaker of the House Philip Gunn (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

After months of contention, extended postpartum health coverage coverage for Mississippi moms is one step closer to becoming law. 

The House Medicaid Committee, in its first meeting this legislative session, voted Tuesday to advance legislation that would extend postpartum Medicaid benefits from two months to a year. 

“This bill demonstrates that we as policymakers also recognize that our commitment to life cannot end once a baby takes his or her first breath,” said Rep. Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg.

READ MORE: FAQ: What is postpartum Medicaid extension, exactly?

Health professionals and medical organizations have long recommended the policy change. Citing data that shows Mississippi’s already-dismal mortality rate is getting worse, they say health problems continue for people who give birth for far longer than two months postpartum. The legislation has the potential to affect thousands — two-thirds of babies born in Mississippi are born to people on Medicaid. 

Dr. Dan Edney, state health officer, told Mississippi Today the passage of this legislation is “absolutely necessary” to improve health outcomes in Mississippi. 

“This is low hanging fruit for us … because we have way too many of our moms dying related to pregnancy,” Edney said. “It’s one of the worst health disparities that we have.”

“I’m so proud to see where we’re moving with postpartum. Everybody that’s in this wheelhouse agrees — there are no dissenters.”

Until now, House leadership has made the final steps toward the legislation becoming law impossible – despite the fact that most representatives support the legislation, according to a survey conducted by Mississippi Today

Over the past two years, the Senate has passed multiple measures to extend postpartum coverage in Mississippi. House Speaker Philip Gunn blocked the legislation from coming to a vote last year in the House and appeared poised to do so again this year.

But Gov. Tate Reeves, who has adamantly opposed the legislation, reversed course this weekend and urged state politicians to pass it. 

Following his announcement, Division of Medicaid Executive Director Drew Snyder, whose department for months has refused to take a stance on postpartum coverage extension, wrote a letter on Feb. 27 to House Speaker Philip Gunn voicing his support for the legislation’s passage. The Division of Medicaid is housed under the governor’s office.

Gunn subsequently said that he would not block the legislation from coming to the House floor, as he did during the 2022 legislative session, though he appeared to walk the statement back slightly in an interview with SuperTalk on Feb. 28.

“I noticed on your website here you say that Speaker Gunn is going to let the people vote,” Gunn said. “Well, we’ve not decided to do that yet. We decided to move the bill out of the committee and keep it alive.”

In his letter, Snyder estimated the policy change would cost the state $7.1 million, according to House Medicaid Committee Chair Joey Hood, R-Ackerman. The state currently has $3.9 billion in surplus funds. 

Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, said during the meeting that he was disappointed that it took the leadership of the state feeling like their backs were “against the wall” for this legislation to pass the committee. 

“It is a shame that we have to wait for the political winds to turn or somebody that feels like they’re not going to be able to be reelected to do something like this,” he said. “This is a moment that we should be celebrating the lives of women who actually bring life. But yet, it is a political ploy in this process.”

About the allegation of political theater, Hood had “no comment” in an interview with reporters.  

As the state expects thousands more births following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last summer to overturn abortion rights, McGee said this measure is necessary to protect the lives of Mississippians and their babies — by providing longer postnatal care, the risk of preterm birth lowers. Mississippi has the highest infant mortality rate, preterm birth rate and low birthweight rate in the country. 

“Healthy moms equal healthy babies, and if we care about babies, we must show that we care for and value their mothers,” she said. 

Despite the legislation’s passage in the house committee, now its future is up to Hood — he decides when and if it makes it onto the House floor. 

Following the meeting, Hood said there was “no timetable” regarding when the legislation might make it to the House.

“It’s on the calendar. We’re just going to continue to work it through the process,” he said, citing a line he’s repeated to the media in recent weeks. 

“You know how the legislative process is,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”

If the legislation passes, Mississippi will join 29 other states that have extended postpartum Medicaid coverage to one year.

READ MORE‘Mississippi moms can’t wait’: Doctors urge legislators to extend postpartum coverage

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Devna Bose, a Neshoba County native, covers community health. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied print journalism and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Devna reported on education at Chalkbeat Newark and at the Post and Courier’s Education Lab, and on race and social justice at the Charlotte Observer. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Star-Ledger and the Associated Press, and she has appeared on WNYC to discuss her reporting. Devna has been awarded for her coverage of K-12 education in the Carolinas.