A bipartisan step toward healthier Florida families | Editorial
Giving newborns, and their mothers, a better start in life
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, speaks during the opening of the Florida Legislature's annual session at the Capitol in Tallahassee on March 2.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, speaks during the opening of the Florida Legislature's annual session at the Capitol in Tallahassee on March 2. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published March 24, 2021|Updated March 24, 2021

A measure the Florida House is moving with bipartisan support is good for needy families, public health and taxpayers alike. House Speaker Chris Sprowls announced legislation this week allowing new Florida mothers covered by Medicaid to receive a year of postnatal health care coverage, instead of the current 60 days. This is a targeted, affordable idea that will make for healthier families, especially among minority and at-risk communities.

The Republican speaker from Palm Harbor announced the plan at a news conference Tuesday, pointing to the critical role of available care to the health of a mother and growing baby. “Postnatal coverage of up to a year after birth can significantly boost the health of the mother,” Sprowls said. “And we know that healthy moms are better positioned to raise healthy babies.”

The measure, to be proposed this week as part of the House’s Medicaid package, would extend coverage an additional 10 months, giving mothers expanded access to health care visits, mental health services and additional follow-up care. About 97,600 women annually are expected to be covered by the extension, according to the state Agency for Health Care Administration. And the program would fall under the normal Medicaid match provided by the federal government, meaning that Florida would pay only about $92 million of the $240 million in costs.

The legislation is a bipartisan achievement that will strengthen families, stabilize households and put newborns on a securer course to childhood. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Margo Snipe reported, the postnatal period can expose mothers to a number of health complications. Of the approximately 700 deaths across the U.S. resulting from maternal health-related causes every year, one-third occur during the postpartum period, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Nationwide, minority women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to the CDC. And Black infants die before their first birthday at a rate more than twice that of infants born to non-Hispanic white mothers.

While the rate of maternal deaths in Florida has improved over the years, racial disparities persist. Of the 36 women who died in Florida due to pregnancy-related complications in 2018, about half were Black, according to Florida’s Pregnancy-Associated Mortality Review data. Providing a longer continuum of care will help address racial disparities. And every mother enrolled will have a stronger network of support, helping families at a critical time to nurture a healthier household.

With a 60-day benefit, “a lot of women fall off the coverage cliff at that moment,” said Alison Yager, deputy executive director of the Florida Health Justice Project. But an extension puts women onto a path of longer-term health, in addition to addressing concerns like postpartum depression, which doesn’t end two months after delivery.

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House Democrats rightly praised Sprowls’ leadership on the issue. While advocates are right the state has a long way to go in improving services for children and low-income Floridians, this measure is a stepping point to rethinking the needs of families at every stage. The state will need to be proactive to keep eligible mothers in care and to ensure that these vital services are readily accessible. But it all starts with the Senate signing on to Sprowls’ commendable idea.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.