Answering a recent call from the state’s Catholic bishops, Mississippi state legislators advanced a bill on Feb. 28 that would extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers from 60 days to a full year after they give birth.

The bill was advanced by the Mississippi House Medicaid Committee via voice vote in its first legislative session of the year. Similar legislation had already passed the state Senate. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves this past week announced that he would sign the legislation if it came to his desk, a reversal from his previous opposition to the legislation.

Health experts have long recommended the policy change.

Last week, Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson and Bishop Louis Kihneman III, of Biloxi – the state’s Catholic bishops – wrote a letter to state legislative leaders explaining why more postpartum Medicaid coverage was important, touting it as lifesaving legislation.

“This simple change would save the lives of mothers at a minimal cost to Mississippi taxpayers,” the bishops’ wrote, citing that many fatal postpartum complications occur after the current 60-day postpartum Medicaid coverage that the state has.

Mississippi is one of the poorest U.S. states, where Medicaid finances about 60 percent of births.

The state also has the highest infant mortality rate in the U.S., averaging 8.12 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the latest Center for Disease Control data from September 30, 2022. The maternal mortality ratio in Mississippi is also high, at 36.0 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the state health department Maternal Mortality Report from 2017-2019 that was released last month.

Kopacz and Kihneman cited both statistics to show that “the health of new mothers and children are inextricably linked.” The bishops added that racial disparities are growing, with Black women four times more likely to experience a pregnancy related death than white women in Mississippi, most of which could have been avoided with proper healthcare.

“The commitment to life must not end at birth,” Kopacz and Kihneman wrote. “We believe that access to affordable healthcare is a fundamental human right, one that is necessary for the flourishing of families and communities.”

The bishops went on to call it “heartbreaking” when healthcare is out of reach for those in need.

In announcing he would sign the legislation, Reeves highlighted the “Post-Dobbs world” that now exists after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. Mississippi is one of 13 states that had a trigger law that made almost all abortions illegal once Roe was overturned.

“That legal victory ensures that more babies will be born into this great state and this great country. I believe that to be a beautiful thing,” Reeves said in a statement. “I also believe that added stress will be felt by Mississippi moms. We have to love them. We have to support them.”