Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy delivers the 2023 State of the State Address on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. Behind Dunleavy are Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers from 60 days to 360 days by introducing a bill that fulfills a pledge he made during last month’s State of the State address.
Announcing the bill with a written statement on Friday, the governor’s office said mental health care for new mothers is a key factor in preventing maternal deaths.
“Many women who experience postpartum depression don’t have an onset of symptoms until after that initial screening, which is too late to seek treatment with Medicaid coverage,” the statement said. “Nearly 16 percent of women in Alaska who experienced perinatal depression or anxiety between 2015 and 2020 indicated that they could not access needed treatments or support due to challenges with insurance or cost.”
In last month’s speech, Dunleavy said he wants to make Alaska “the most pro-life state” in the country, an act that will require support for parents as well as children.
Thirty-six other states have already extended their Medicaid coverage for new mothers, said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, under a provision of the federal American Rescue Plan Act that allows them to voluntarily do so.
State law requires the Alaska Legislature to authorize voluntary Medicaid coverage before implementation.
Extending postpartum care will cost an additional $2.6 million per year, according to preliminary estimates.
The bill has been referred to the House Health and Social Services Committee; companion legislation is expected in the Senate next week.
Zink noted that America’s maternal mortality rates are the highest in the developed world and are worsening. Between 2018 and 2020, eight Alaskans died while pregnant and a 2013 bulletin previously reported by USA Today noted 13 deaths between 2000 and 2011.
Those figures cover only deaths among pregnant women and within 42 days of the pregnancy’s end. Postpartum health problems can persist after that period and have caused additional deaths.
Medicaid, also known as DenaliCare in Alaska, provides health care access to people with lower incomes.
Thousands of women could receive additional benefits if the Legislature passes the bill. In 2021, Medicaid paid the costs of 38% of the state’s births, or 3,586 new Alaskans. The number of Alaskans who benefit from the new legislation could be higher than that.
“The health department projected 5,000 women would have had some sort of coverage gap within the 10 additional months,” said Jeff Turner, the governor’s deputy communications director, citing an estimate based on pre-pandemic figures.
Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, spoke in favor of the measure after its introduction.
“After a perfectly healthy pregnancy, I had three separate, life-threatening things happen,” she said. “I required a lot of medical care, and I know how important it is. If we want Alaska to be a place where families feel welcome, it starts with making sure that mothers and children are taken care of at their most vulnerable time. They are their most vulnerable and need the most medical attention in that first year.”
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