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Helping mothers-to-be

`ANY time you get Senator Durenberger, Senator Hollings, and Senator Thurmond and me together on a bill, it's an idea whose time must have come, or one of us hasn't read it.'' So said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts of the bill he and his colleagues introduced last week. We're inclined to agree with the first option: This is an idea whose time has come.

Their proposal would extend medicaid-supported prenatal care benefits, including nutrition, to pregnant women whose incomes put them below the federal poverty line but who do not qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or ``welfare.''

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The problem is one of the state-to-state gaps in the welfare system: Each state sets its own eligibility criteria for AFDC, and AFDC eligibility is itself a prerequisite for medicaid eligibility. No AFDC, no medicaid. And some states provide AFDC benefits only to those with incomes well below the federal poverty line.

It is to the problem of poor women caught in this ``medicaid gap'' that the Durenberger-Hollings-Kennedy-Thurmond proposal addresses itself.

The bill is also an attempt to improve US infant-mortality rates, long one of the more troubling of the country's public-health statistics.

A relatively small investment -- some $100 million -- in care, including ensuring that mothers-to-be have adequate nutrition and supervision during their pregnancies, is expected to yield handsome payoffs, in economic terms alone.

Low birth weight is seen as the most significant factor in infant mortality. Meanwhile, the annual cost of intensive care for newborns is running at more than $1.5 billion.

Caring for infants isn't just a matter of cost-effectiveness. But this proposal looks like a good investment in the future.

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