ANNAPOLIS (AP) More low-income women will be eligible for Medicaid family planning services in Maryland next week when a new law takes effect.

The expansion will allow Maryland women who are at or below 200 percent of the poverty level and under 51 years of age to be eligible for services such as pelvic exams, screenings for breast and reproductive cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. Tests for sexually transmitted diseases, counseling and prescriptions for contraception also are provided.

Previously, Maryland only allowed women to be eligible for the program after they had their first baby. Supporters of expanding the program say it will improve women's health, save the state money by reducing unintended pregnancies and births and reduce abortions.

"We're expected to save between $20 (million) and $40 million a year, depending on how many people get involved," said Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, who sponsored the legislation in the House of Delegates.

The measure received bipartisan support as well.

Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil, who co-sponsored the bill, noted the expansion could reduce abortions by as many as 2,000, as well as save the state money during tough fiscal times.

"It's a win-win," Smigiel said. "This is an example that you can, without compromising your principles, reach across the aisles."

While state analysts say the amount of savings cannot be reliably estimated, it is expected to be significant. For example, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Oregon and South Carolina each saved more than $15 million in a single year by helping women avoid unintended pregnancies that would have resulted in Medicaid-funded births, according to a federally funded evaluation of state Medicaid family planning expansions completed in 2003.

On Oct. 1, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene began reprograming its Medicaid computer system to prepare for the Jan. 1 expansion. The department also hired nine employees to administer the program in October.

The state is preparing to enroll as many as 31,191 eligible women, a 177 percent increase in program enrollment, according to an analysis by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

The total family planning service costs for the second half of this fiscal year will be about $5 million, with the state paying about $1.2 million and the federal government paying about $4.2 million.

To try to illustrate how much could be saved, state budget analysts noted that the average cost of a Medicaid birth is about $19,000. For every 100 births avoided by expanding family planning services, Medicaid could save $1.9 million in total costs.

The expansion is one of a handful of new laws taking effect on Jan. 1, because most of the laws approved by the General Assembly this year already have taken effect.


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