By Bill Parry
New York State became the first in the nation to guarantee prenatal care for all women regardless of income last week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that makes pregnancy a qualifying event for enrollment in a health insurance plan. The bill was introduced by state Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) following a report by city Comptroller Scott Stringer that highlighted the need for expanded access to vital prenatal care.
Prenatal care is essential for healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. Children born to mothers who received no prenatal care are three times more likely to be born with low birth weight and five times more likely to die than those whose mothers received prenatal care. This costly care was out of reach for many uninsured New Yorkers.
“As a mother, I know firsthand how important prenatal care is and this historic legislation ensures that women and children’s health is not placed at the mercy of an arbitrary date on the calendar,” Simotis said Dec. 23.
Under current law, New Yorkers can enroll in a health insurance plan only during a designated open enrollment period, unless they experience a qualifying event triggering a special enrollment period. Qualifying events include marriage, divorce and gaining citizenship, among others.
While giving birth opens enrollment, becoming pregnant did not. The passage of Simotas’ bill closes this loophole, allowing women who become pregnant to apply for insurance at any time and guarantees access to prenatal care.
“As my report, “Time to Deliver,” showed, expanding prenatal coverage improves the health of babies and new mothers, while saving taxpayer dollars and strengthening our economy,” Stringer said. “Recognizing pregnancy as a qualifying event to sign up for health insurance on the state’s exchange year-round is a smart move for all New Yorkers.”
Also on Dec. 23, Cuomo signed another Simotas bill that gives family members more time to keep Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption and Disabled Rent Increase Exemption benefits following the death of a loved one. Previously, families had only 60 days to file the necessary paperwork after which the benefits expired.
Simotas’ legislation extends the period by up to six months after the death of the benefit holder, helping senior citizens and people with disabilities to stay in their homes.
“Families experiencing loss have many decisions to make in addition to coping with grief,” Simotas said. “Giving them more time to take over the benefits they are entitled to is not only the right thing to do, it is good policy. We must not put affordable housing out of reach for senior citizens and people with disabilities just because they didn’t get their paperwork in on time.”
Shortly after taking office, Simotas noted that while the number of New Yorkers eligible for rent assistance increased every year, the number of enrollees had actually decreased. She authored legislation in 2012 that increased the accessibility and visibility of DRIE and SCRIE benefits, and enrollment in both programs increased as a result of new outreach efforts and increased awareness.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr