Prenatal programs for the poor need a bigger role in Georgia

Georgia recently dropped from a grade of “C” to a “D” on the March of Dimes Premature Birth Report Card. The report shows 10.8 percent of our babies are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy, with some cities in the state showing an even higher rate.

Callan Wells
Callan Wells

To put that in perspective, Malawi, a small, impoverished African nation, has the highest rate of preterm births in the world at 18.1 percent. That rate is just 5 percentage points greater than the one in our own city of Columbus.

Experts such as Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice of the Morehouse School of Medicine and Dr. Larry Matsumoto, a perinatologist at the Center for Perinatal Medicine at Northside Hospital, say a big reason for premature births is suboptimal health of mothers before they become pregnant.

If the state wants to see mothers giving birth to healthy, full-term babies, it should start by publicizing available health programs and help women get enrolled and use their benefits fully.

Georgia has not extended Medicaid to adults with low incomes so that women have routine access to care to address diabetes, obesity, cardiac stress and other chronic conditions that increase the risk of preterm births. But it does have a program that can help.

A little-known existing Medicaid program called Planning for Healthy Babies (P4HB) allows women to address some of the risk factors for preterm birth and other reproductive health issues. P4HB is available for women between the ages of 18 and 44 and provides access to contraception, treatment for sexually transmitted infections, family planning services, patient education and counseling, and prescriptions for vitamins and folic acid (beneficial for women in early stages of pregnancy).

Further, P4HB offers a free annual family planning exam that could allow women to discover and address the risk factors for a preterm delivery. Women who have already given birth to a low birth-weight baby can receive even more benefits through P4HB.

This Medicaid program can also be used by women who want contraception and annual exams with no plans for getting pregnant. The Planning for Healthy Babies program is available for women with incomes up to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, or $32,664 per year for a household of two.

Though technically available for many currently uninsured women, P4HB is not widely publicized, and barriers to enrollment remain due to breakdowns in the state’s application and eligibility systems.

Once a woman becomes pregnant, she may be eligible for Pregnant Women’s Medicaid for her prenatal services, a safe delivery and post-partum care. While half of all births in Georgia are covered by Medicaid, many women are not able to utilize these benefits to their full extent. Some have never had health coverage before or have low “health literacy.” Some experience significant delays in care as they go through the process of enrolling in a Care Management Organization (CMO), as is now required by Medicaid policies.

Georgia Legal Services Program has a Benefits Hotline that assists potential applicants in getting and maintaining Medicaid and offers information on how to fully utilize their services. Those who are interested should call Georgia Legal Services Program at 1-888-632-6332 for more information.

Callan Wells, M.S., a Georgia native, is the Benefits Hotline supervisor at Georgia Legal Services Program.