Low-income women to get free health planning services

Nearly 35,000 low-income women in the state are now eligible for free pregnancy counseling, contraception and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases and breast cancer under a program that starts at the beginning of the year.

Lawmakers and health officials announced Monday that women with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line — or $22,000 per year for a single woman — can gain access to the free family planning services beginning Jan. 1.

The program was made possible by the Family Planning Works Act, legislation enacted during the last General Assembly session. Women can start signing up for the program at community health centers and clinics immediately.

Lawmakers hope the program will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies in the state and give young women a better chance in life while cutting the state's health care costs. They also think it will lower the number of abortions and of cases of infant mortality and low birth weight.

Maryland is the wealthiest state in the nation but ranks near the bottom in birth outcomes, said Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who is a sponsor of the legislation. The state ranks 42nd in infant mortality and 38th in the percentage of low birth weights.

Baltimore, Prince George's County and the Eastern Shore have the women with the most need. Monday's announcement was made at the Druid Hill Health Center in Baltimore, which is run by the Baltimore City Health Department. About 9,000 women are eligible for free family health planning in the city.

"We are talking about allowing young women to continue their lives and be productive members of our community," said Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat who is another sponsor of the legislation.

Estimates show the legislation would result in 7,900 fewer unintended pregnancies, 4,100 unintended births and 2,600 fewer abortions. It could save the state $20 million to $40 million annually because of unintended births, which put financial pressure on the Medicaid system. Medicaid pays for about 23,000 births a year, with the average birth costing about $19,000.

Previous family planning programs helped women only after they had had their babies, which public health officials said defeats the purpose.

Most of the $5.5 million needed to implement the program will be funded through federal Medicaid money. The Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene is using grant money to fund an additional $1.2 million.

"This initiative can be a game-changer for the state," said Mizeur. "With this expansion, we will improve the health and well-being of thousands of women and children in our state."

Legislation to create the program took three years to pass. Pugh said some critics have questioned why the money was being spent on the program now when health care reform is soon expected to be implemented.

"I say, 'Why wait?'" Pugh said. "There are women who need help now."

Melanie Townsend Diggs said these types of programs are good for women in need. The mother from Baltimore turned to a similar state program — but one that helped women who already had children — when her husband lost his job in 2007.

"I think a lot of women will now get care where before they wouldn't because they couldn't afford the expense," Townsend Diggs said.


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