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OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Legislation in Olympia would provide longer health care coverage for women after pregnancy.

Senate Bill 6128, scheduled for a hearing Monday, would extend postpartum Medicaid coverage to one year after a woman gives birth.

For many low-income women, coverage currently ends after about 60 days.

Sam Hatzenbeler, a health policy associate with the Economic Opportunity Institute, says about 5,000 Washington women per year lose coverage within three months of having a child.

"You may have just had major surgery -- a C-section," she points out. "You're trying to manage your stress, feed your baby and, if you're lucky, take a shower once a week.

"So losing your health insurance is the opposite of what you need. But it's more than just being terribly inconvenienced -- it's an issue of life and death."

There are more than 700 pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. each year, with a third happening postpartum. Hatzenbeler notes these tragedies hit communities of color hardest.

American Indian and Alaska Native women in Washington are six to seven times more likely to die than white women. At least nine states, including California, are considering extending postpartum coverage this year as well.

Dr. Laura Sienas, a maternal fetal medicine physician, says the time after birth is a period of vulnerability for women.

She says many women get access to health coverage for the first time during pregnancy and discover chronic medical conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure.

Once the newborn arrives, women can have complications from delivery, such as heart disease or mental health disorders such as postpartum depression and substance use disorder.

"It's really important to remember that we don't want to leave these women hanging after 60 days," she stresses. "It's a stressful time with a new baby and to be able to give them access to care and those resources that they need would be something really important."

Sienas notes the United States is the only industrialized country where maternal mortality is on the rise.

More than 30 organizations are supporting the bill, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Indian Health Commission and Washington State Medical Association.

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