A pregnant woman cradles her womb.

A pregnant woman cradles her womb.

Credit: Stock photo

The state Senate unanimously approved a bill Monday extending Medicaid coverage from six months to a year for low-income postpartum women.

The legislation aims to address Georgia’s high rate of maternal mortality — women’s deaths related to pregnancy.

Medicaid, the federal/state program for low-income and disabled residents, covers more than half of the births in Georgia.

The added Medicaid coverage at the end of pregnancy was backed by Gov. Brian Kemp, whose budget contains $28 million for the coming fiscal year to implement the change.

Many maternal deaths occur after childbirth, said Sen. Dean Burke (R-Bainbridge), a physician and lead sponsor of the bill. Hundreds of women die from pregnancy-related problems nationally every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If Senate Bill 338 ultimately passes the General Assembly, Georgia would join more than 10 states that recently have approved legislation to create the 12-month coverage. The legislation would still require federal approval, which is considered likely. The federal COVID relief bill contained a provision allowing the coverage year.

Two years ago, the General Assembly approved increasing postpartum coverage from two to six months.

The maternal mortality problem affects certain populations and areas more than others.

A report by Surgo Ventures, citing a 2019 study, said that rural residents have a 9% greater probability of severe maternal morbidity and mortality than those in urban areas. Georgia has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality, defined as deaths due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth.

Rural women in Georgia have a significantly higher maternal mortality rate than those in urban Georgia, said Jacob Warren, director of the Center for Rural Health and Health Disparities at Mercer University School of Medicine. The risk is particularly high for rural African-American women, who have double the maternal mortality rate of rural white women.

Warren said no rural county in Georgia has a maternal-fetal medicine specialist — a doctor who helps take care of women having complicated or high-risk pregnancies. And for many women in rural areas, the nearest hospital is a long ambulance ride away, which can lead to bad outcomes.

The state created a review panel in 2014 to identify maternal deaths and their causes. Approximately 26 Georgia women die from pregnancy complications for every 100,000 live births, compared to the national average of about 17 women. And about 60% of the state’s maternal deaths between 2012 and 2016 were found to be preventable.

State Sen. Gloria Butler (D-Stone Mountain), the chamber’s minority leader, urged lawmakers to pass the extended coverage, calling Georgia’s maternal mortality rate “shameful.’’

“It provides an umbrella of protection for mothers and babies at an extremely vulnerable time, and it is a proven solution that can be immediately implemented to improve outcomes.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Health News.