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Alaska public health officials, child welfare advocates support bill to extend care for new mothers


Alaska public health officials, child welfare advocates support bill to extend care for new mothers

Mar 09, 2023 | 6:35 pm ET
By Sophia Carlisle
Alaska public health officials, child welfare advocates support bill to extend care for new mothers
Senate Finance Committee members hear testimony in favor of Senate Bill 58 on Tuesday. The bill would improve access to health care, including mental health care, for new mothers. (Legislative livestream screen capture)

On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee heard testimony from public health officials expressing their support for Senate Bill 58, a bill that would increase postpartum Medicaid coverage for new mothers.

SB 58 was introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and comes at a time when maternal death rates are rising across the nation and the state. It proposes extending the time period that mothers may have Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months. 

Supporters of the bill believe that it may help decrease rates of maternal mortality as death rates are often linked to postpartum depression, which some women do not have the means to seek treatment for due to lack of access to health care. Access to health care — including for mental health — for a longer period of time may help more women get the care they need following the birth of their children, experts said. 

State Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink expressed the importance of supporting mothers who may be dealing with depression following childbirth. Depression can sometimes lead to suicide, which is a frequent cause of preventable maternal mortality in Alaska. Zink said that increasing access to health care can help mothers see better health outcomes following birth. 

“[A]ccess to health care leads to improved outcomes and helps to prevent some of these preventable deaths…” Zink said. She added that while maternal deaths are a big part of the problem that SB 58 might address, it’s not the only area that the bill could help with. 

Rates of mental illness and conditions that are exacerbated by childbirth could be improved should mothers and their children get better access to health care, according to public health officials. “I would like to note that postpartum pregnancy deaths are just really the tip of the iceberg,” Zink said.

Maternal mortality and depression can also lead to poorer outcomes for children, as they can lead to experiencing delayed social and cognitive development. “We see from previous studies that adverse childhood experiences greatly impact a child’s lifelong life expectancy as well as health care costs. And so by improving maternal health, both mental health as well as physical health, that has long-term implications for both a child as well as the mother,” Zink said. 

Trevor Storrs, who is the president of the Alaska Children’s Trust, echoed the sentiment in an interview. “We see the biggest benefit of SB 58 is that it is primary prevention in preventing child abuse and neglect.” He added that: “It is far upstream work. It provides support for both the mother and the child,” he added. 

If the bill were to pass, it would go into effect in July of next year, according to Emily Ricci who is the deputy commissioner for the Department of Public Health. SB 58 applies to anyone who is covered by pregnancy Medicaid coverage, both tribal and nontribal, and has the potential to provide over 5,000 women with health care, she said. 

Support for the bill was also shown by testifiers from the Alaska Children’s Trust and the American Heart Association, among others. Some were excited about the possibility of the bill to build better support systems for Alaskans. 

Dr. Zink shared that idea. “Strong families are the foundation of a healthy society and a vibrant economy,” she said.