By Jessica Adair
On Tuesday, 37 senators called for women who become pregnant to be able to enroll in maternity coverage year-round.
Currently, women who are uninsured or have a health plan that does not offer maternity coverage (yes, they still exist) and become pregnant could be stranded and stuck with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills — on top of dangerous health risks.
For years, advocates have pressured the Department of Health and Human Services to allow pregnant women year-round access to health insurance enrollment. Last month, HHS Secretary Burwell offered a glimmer of hope, stating she was “happy to consider the issue.” Just days later, HHS issued a final rule stating that pregnant women would not be able to sign up for health insurance outside of the standard Open Enrollment period.
Allowing people to sign up for health insurance outside of the three-month Open Enrollment period is nothing new. People who experience certain life events are granted Special Enrollment periods, typically 60 days to sign up for a new plan. Turning 26 and losing coverage from a parent, getting married or divorced and moving are all examples of life events that would qualify for Special Enrollment.
Having a baby is another example of a qualifying life event. So, a woman without health coverage could enroll in health insurance as soon as her baby was born, but not prior to giving birth – meaning she could potentially miss out on nine months of prenatal care during her pregnancy.
The potential for disastrous health and financial consequences for women without maternity coverage cannot be overstated. Even without complications, prenatal care and delivery costs average $23,000. Considering that the median household income in the United States is $51,939, having a child could cost half of American families 44% or more of their yearly income.
More importantly, the need for maternity care is critical to women’s health. Maternal mortality is 3 to 4 times higher for pregnant women without maternity care than for those who access care. The United States currently has appallingly high maternal mortality rates, so awful that the treatment of pregnant women in this country has been deemed a “human rights failure” by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. At least half of these deaths are preventable.
The Obama Administration has largely staked its legacy on expanding access to health care. Indeed, thanks in no small part to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the uninsurance rate has dropped to its lowest level in years. And the ACA has greatly increased the number of plans that include maternity coverage – which is now considered an Essential Health Benefit on all plans sold on the new health insurance marketplaces. It seems strange, then, that the Administration has hesitated to grant this vital special enrollment period.
Fortunately, the final rule isn’t necessarily final. Secretary Burwell has the authority to grant additional special enrollment periods. She can and should do so in this case. Already, thousands of people have joined with the senators to call for the creation of a special enrollment period. We ask that you, as well, join us to demand access to health care for pregnant women. Sign the petition today!