<b>Letters to the Editor</b>

March of Dimes stands behind pre-natal health care


With goodwill and a little hard work the United States Congress can accomplish a significant achievement this year: guaranteeing that 99 percent of America's pregnant women have access to health coverage for maternity care.

When it returns from its summer recess in September, Congress has the opportunity to approve legislation that would make health insurance available to pregnant women who are often employed and have modest family incomes. This provision has broad bipartisan support in Congress and in the States. In fact, just this month, the nation's Governors voted to support this proposal at their annual summer meeting.

Nearly one in five women of childbearing age in the United States is uninsured, many of whom will become pregnant. In Arizona, approximately 300,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 lack health insurance. For these otherwise young and healthy women, pregnancy is typically the most expensive medical event they will experience as young adults. What can be done to help them?

It may be that wholesale reform of the health care system will take time, but the legislation now pending in Congress includes incremental but important steps to help uninsured pregnant women and newborns.

Specifically, this legislation permits (rather than mandates) states to use federal funds to extend health coverage to approximately 41,000 pregnant women who, each year, meet the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) income guidelines. The provision for pregnant women, which has been introduced in one form or another in the U.S. Senate by Senators Bond (R-MO), Breaux (D-LA), Bingaman (D-NM), Lugar (R-IN), McCain (R-AZ), Corzine (D-NJ), Kennedy (D-MA) and Snowe (R-ME) and in the House of Representatives by Mrs. Lowey (D-NY), Mr. Hyde (R-IL) and Mr. Murtha (D-PA), would also provide health coverage to newborns.

Importantly, President Bush and Health and Human Services Secretary Thompson have expressed their support for improving access to prenatal care. In recent days, numerous proposals to expand access to coverage for pregnant women have been considered. The President's press secretary said it best: "the President's concern is to make certain that there is proper prenatal care." At the March of Dimes we couldn't agree more. And the least cumbersome and contentious way of meeting this goal is to make sure states have the option to cover income-eligible pregnant women in their State Children's Health Insurance programs.

But for the political will to make this legislation a priority, there is simply no good reason why this bill cannot be passed this year.

SCHIP is the only major federally-funded program that denies coverage to pregnant women while providing coverage to their infants and children. Covering eligible babies once they are born but denying prenatal coverage to their mothers makes no sense.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, infants born to mothers who receive no prenatal care or late prenatal care are nearly twice as likely to be low birth-weight. In fact, low birth-weight accounts for 10 percent of all health care costs for children.

Expanded health insurance coverage for pregnant women with limited family incomes will have a profound - and immediate impact on improving their health and their children's.

A recent study commissioned by the March of Dimes found that if this provision becomes law and every state picks up the option to cover income eligible pregnant women, ninety-nine percent of all pregnant women in the U. S. will have access to health insurance coverage.

That's a success story in which we could all take justifiable pride.

Henly Saldaiza, State Director

Arizona Chapter March of Dimes