Ga. Speaker backs longer Medicaid coverage for low-income moms

    House Speaker David Ralston and Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper announced last week that they will push to extend Medicaid coverage for low-income moms this session. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

    The top lawmaker in the Georgia House of Representative will back a push to extend Medicaid coverage for low-income moms after they give birth, all but assuring the proposal will clear the House this session.

    House Speaker David Ralston called a press conference Thursday – one week before a key deadline – to announce his support of a new bill that would let women keep their Medicaid coverage for six months after they deliver. Currently, that coverage ends after two months.

    Ralston had earlier spoken favorably of the proposal but noted it may difficult to find the funding at a time when lawmakers are being asked to cut spending. He said Thursday that lawmakers would likely need to find about $19 million to fund the proposal.

    If the House backs the measure, as it seems likely to do, it would still need approval from the Senate and the governor.

    But for now, Ralston’s endorsement is a major coup for supporters who hail from both sides of the aisle.

    The bill, filed Thursday by Rep. Sharon Cooper, requires the state to request an amendment to an existing Medicaid waiver. This would be separate from Gov. Brian Kemp’s pending waiver requests.

    The proposal would also order the state Department of Community Health to offer Medicaid coverage for lactation care and services.

    “I think that it is completely unacceptable for the No. 1 state in the nation in which to do business to have one of the highest maternal mortality rates of any state in the country,” Ralston told reporters.

    “I think that’s a very critical time period,” referring to the six months after a woman gives birth when many of the fatalities occur. “And I think this is one of the most significant measures in the health care field that we can undertake this session.”

    Georgia routinely falls toward the bottom on national maternal mortality rankings, and black women are at least three times more likely than their white counterparts to die before, during or not long after giving birth. A state review panel deemed the majority of pregnancy-related deaths in Georgia preventable.

    Cooper, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, has been pressing for a full year of coverage. A study committee that she led last year also recommended one year of coverage.

    But the Marietta Republican has previously said she was also advocating for as many additional months of coverage as possible. She acknowledged the “tight budget” lawmakers are working with Thursday, but she called the proposal a step in the right direction.

    As is, a $19 million addition to next year’s budget would be significant and will add another competing priority into the mix. The highest profile addition to the budget is the $350 million Kemp proposed for the rest of the $5,000 teacher pay raise he promised on the campaign trail.

    “I reject the view that if you can’t add everybody right now, we shouldn’t add anybody right now,” Ralston said. “What we’re doing is dealing with a very critical time in the lives of these mothers and infants, and so I think this is a very, very important step.”

    Cooper said that about 60% of the 135,000 births every year in Georgia are to mothers who have Medicaid coverage.

    “We will just have to see how many will take advantage of this,” Cooper said. “And it’ll be an education process of helping teach mothers how important those follow-up visits are.”

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.