Mississippi has the nation’s worst infant mortality. It will allow earlier Medicaid to help babies

FILE - Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves delivers his State of the State address to the Mississippi State Legislature, Feb. 26, 2024, at the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Reeves has signed a new law Tuesday, March 12, that will allow women to receive Medicaid coverage earlier in pregnancy. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

FILE – Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves delivers his State of the State address to the Mississippi State Legislature, Feb. 26, 2024, at the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Reeves has signed a new law Tuesday, March 12, that will allow women to receive Medicaid coverage earlier in pregnancy. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A new Mississippi law will allow earlier Medicaid coverage for pregnant women in an effort to improve health outcomes for mothers and babies in a poor state with the worst rate of infant mortality in the U.S.

The “presumptive eligibility” legislation signed Tuesday by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves will become law July 1. It says Medicaid will pay for a pregnant woman’s outpatient medical care for up to 60 days while her application for the government-funded insurance program is being considered.

Processing Medicaid applications can take weeks, and physicians say early prenatal care is vital.

The advocacy group Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable praised the new law, which passed the Republican-controlled Legislature with bipartisan support.

“This represents a significant step forward in the effort to create better health for women and their families,” the group said in a statement.

Black infants in Mississippi were nearly twice as likely as white ones to die over the past decade, according to a report unveiled Jan. 18 by the state Department of Health.

Presumptive Medicaid eligibility during pregnancy would be based on questions about income, asked by health care providers such county health department workers. If a woman’s Medicaid application is ultimately rejected because her income is too high, Medicaid would still pay for services provided during the time of presumptive eligibility.

House Medicaid Committee Chairwoman Missy McGee, a Republican from Hattiesburg, said the total cost to the Medicaid program will be just under $600,000 a year.

About 41% of births in the U.S. and 57% in Mississippi were financed by Medicaid in 2022, according to the health policy research group KFF. Only Louisiana had a larger share of births covered by Medicaid that year, at 61%.

In Mississippi, Medicaid coverage for pregnant women 19 and older is based on income. A woman in that age category who has no dependents can receive up to about $29,000 and qualify for Medicaid during pregnancy. One with three dependents can get as much as $59,700 and qualify.

Mississippi Medicaid coverage is available to all income levels for those who are pregnant and younger than 19.

In 2023, Mississippi extended postpartum Medicaid coverage from two months to a full year, with Reeves saying the change was part of a “new pro-life agenda” to help mothers in a state where abortion is tightly restricted.

But, Mississippi is among 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid eligibility to include people earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level, or $20,120 annually for a single person. Expansion is allowed under the federal health overhaul that then-President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010.

The Mississippi House recently voted for Medicaid expansion. The state Senate has not voted on an expansion proposal this year, and Reeves has said for years that he opposes adding people to government programs.

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