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What state lawmakers are doing about Georgia's high maternal mortality rate
Georgia's state Capitol in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — A top legislative leader is throwing his support behind a plan to lengthen health insurance for mothers of newborns, trying to prevent maternal deaths.

Georgia's state-federal Medicaid insurance plan provides only two months of coverage for poor mothers after their children are born. The plan pushed by Republican Rep. Sharon Cooper of Marietta would lengthen that coverage to six months. House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, met with reporters Thursday along with Cooper to announce the plan.

"It is completely unacceptable for the No. 1 state in the nation to do business to have one of the highest maternal mortality rates of any state in the country," Ralston told reporters.

Georgia has a high rate of mothers dying after birth, particularly concentrated among African American, rural and older mothers, according to a legislative study of the issue. Fewer than 100 post-birth mothers die in a year, but the death rate in one recent three-year period was 50% above the national rate. The state study estimated 60% of pregnancy-related deaths were preventable.

The state would have to seek a waiver from the federal government to offer the coverage. If approved, Georgia would offer medical care for mothers, plus lactation care to help mothers and infants with breast feeding. Cooper said many mothers don't return for post-birth visits now, but she hoped lactation care might be a hook to get more moms into doctors' offices.

"Mothers will often not go back for their postpartum visit, which is so critical, but they will take an infant to care, to a pediatrician or lactation specialist if they're having trouble breastfeeding," Cooper said.

Georgia's Republican leaders have for more than a decade resisted extending Medicaid coverage to most poor adults, as envisioned under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. However, Gov. Brian Kemp, in another waiver, is looking to extend coverage to some, but not all adults.

 A report last year from a legislative study committee called for a year of coverage for mothers after birth, but with the state facing lagging revenues, some programs are facing budget cuts. 

"This is a tight budget," Cooper said,.

Ralston said Cooper's measure is projected to cost $19 million. The state committed $2 million over two years to provide quality improvement grants for 20 rural hospitals where babies are born.

Kemp has voiced alarm over the problems, but says solutions will take time.