JACKSON, Miss.—Paheadra Robinson shed tears in the Mississippi Capitol rotunda Tuesday afternoon when she learned that the Mississippi House had finally sent a bill to the governor’s desk that will give new mothers Medicaid for up to 12 months after giving birth—well beyond the state’s current 60-day limit on postpartum coverage.
Robinson, who is senior policy consultant for the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, told the Mississippi Free Press that the news moved her “because Black women are dying to give birth to children.” Mississippi has one of the nation’s higher maternal mortality rates, with Black women dying from pregnancy-related deaths at three times the rate of white women.
“Every medical profession that we spoke with, everybody who has worked with moms through the birthing process, have supported this issue and we just really needed, we really needed this as a state to prove that we really cared about children from birth, all the way through life—that if we’re really pro-life, then show it,” she said.
Since 2020, the federal government has required all states to give women access to postpartum Medicaid coverage for 12 months under COVID-19 emergency orders, but with those measures ending in May, the state was set to revert back to only allowing coverage for two months.
In both 2021 and 2022, the Mississippi Senate approved and sent legislation to extend postpartum Medicaid for 12 months to the lower chamber, but Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn repeatedly killed it without allowing a vote on the House floor.
Last year, Gunn said he wanted “to look for ways to keep people off (Medicaid), not put them on.” The Senate again sent this year’s version, Senate Bill 2212, to the House on Feb. 7. As in past years, its sponsor is Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven. Gunn voted against it.
‘Healthy Moms Equal Healthy Babies’
In late February, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves endorsed the legislation for the first time, citing the fact that Mississippi successfully led the charge to overturn Roe v. Wade in last year’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case at the U.S. Supreme Court. The state then implemented a near-total abortion ban that closed Mississippi’s only abortion clinic. State health officials estimate the ban will result in about 5,000 additional births each year.
“That legal victory ensures that more babies will be born into this great state and this great country. I believe that is a beautiful thing,” the governor said in a statement on Feb. 26. “I also believe that added stress will be felt by more Mississippi moms. We have to love them. We have to support them. And in a post-Dobbs world, we may even have to be willing to do things that make us ‘philosophically uncomfortable.’”
After Mississippi Division of Medicaid Director Drew Snyder also endorsed the policy as “a suitable approach for Mississippi,” Gunn relented, allowing the House Medicaid Committee to vote on the postpartum extension bill and send it to the House floor for a full vote.
“I don’t believe that issues surrounding the health of babies, both born and unborn, or women’s health should ever be political chess pieces, as we find ourselves often living in that political reality in these times,” Rep. Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg, said as she introduced S.B. 2212 on the House floor Tuesday. “… This year, as we find ourselves in a post-Dobbs era, the need exists to both strengthen the social safety net and modernize our approach for helping our state’s most vulnerable citizens.”
“I’ve often heard the statement that Mississippi takes pride in being the safest state for a baby to be born,” she continued. She was referencing an assertion both Reeves and his predecessor, Phil Bryant, have made repeatedly—despite the fact that Mississippi is the deadliest state for babies in their first year of life.
“This bill demonstrates that we as policy makers also recognize that our commitment to life cannot end once the baby takes his or her first breath and is outside of the womb,” McGee said. “Because we know healthy moms equal healthy babies. If we care about babies, we must show that we care for and value their mothers.”
Last week, she pointed out, Wyoming lawmakers approved 12 months of postpartum care, making Mississippi the last state in the country “that has failed to make an effort toward extending these benefits for postpartum women.” She explained that Mississippians would qualify for the coverage for up to a year after giving birth if they make up to 194% of the federal poverty rate, or $26,364 for a family of one or $35,521 for a family of two.
Rep. Steve Hopkins, R-Southaven, attempted to table the bill, but the motion failed. The House passed S.B. 2212 by a vote of 92-27, sending it to Reeves’ desk for his signature. Gunn, who will leave the House after this year, was in the minority of Republican lawmakers who voted against the bill.
In the Capitol moments later, Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable Executive Director Cassandra Welchlin informed Paheadra Robinson about the vote in the rotunda and told the Mississippi Free Press that she was “just super excited … because for so many years, many people from across the board have been working to get this legislation passed and so we are here now and what that means is that so many so many women’s lives are going to be saved as a result of that.”
In a tweet, Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the Senate president, called S.B. 2212 “a great example of post-Dobbs, pro-life policy.”
The bill will become law once it receives Gov. Tate Reeves’ signature.