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California Moms On Medi-Cal Want Better Breast Pumps. They’re Asking the Governor for Help.

Courtesy of Lisa Buswell-Rodriguez and Lizabeth Richie.

Lisa Buswell-Rodriguez and her daughter, June, (left) and Lizabeth Richie and her son, Jack (right). Buswell-Rodriguez and Richie have had problems getting insurance to cover the breast pumps they need after having their children.

Courtesy of Lisa Buswell-Rodriguez and Lizabeth Richie.

Lisa Buswell-Rodriguez of Colfax did her research before her daughter June was born six months ago. She carefully picked out a breast pump and went to her doctor to request the prescription. But she quickly learned that the model she wanted wasn’t covered by her insurance. The pump that was included in her plan arrived in the mail a few weeks later, but she says it was “not the best.”

“I was pumping very regularly, but the suction was wild,” she said. “It was just so uncomfortable, and I barely got anything out of it. I was begging my husband, ‘can we just buy a nice pump?’ And trying to just figure out what our options were.”

Right now, health plans can bill Medi-Cal up to $93 for breast pumps. But the California WIC Association — the advocacy group for agencies administering the federal Women, Infants and Children program — says that reimbursement rate was set more than 20 years ago and falls far short of the roughly $200 needed to purchase a quality breast pump. The association is requesting $7 million in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s next budget to change that.

Karen Farley, executive director of the association, says more money for breast pumps will go a long way toward improving breastfeeding rates among women on Medi-Cal.

“If you have a pump that isn’t that high of quality, you may not get the milk supply established and you may not be able to maintain it,” she said “For moms who are on the Medi-Cal plans who have less access to a higher quality pumps, that’s going to limit their ability to succeed at breastfeeding.”

After her daughter was born, Buswell-Rodriguez was determined to stick to breastfeeding. She knew that meant finding better equipment, so she went to the local WIC office to rent a hospital-grade pump. Other women on Medi-Cal who struggle with low-quality pumps find alternate solutions, such as borrowing from friends. Or, they give up and switch to formula.

Advocates say crummy pumps make it hard for women to make healthy choices for their babies. Infants who aren’t breastfed are more likely to contract infections in their first few months, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and may be more prone to diabetes and obesity down the line. This risk is higher for black babies, as breastfeeding rates for African American mothers are about 20 percent lower than white mothers, according to the California WIC Association.

Many women who want to breastfeed don’t pursue it because they have to go back to work too soon after giving birth, or don’t have a support system to lean on when it’s not going well, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Approximately 45 percent of new mothers in California receive Medi-Cal benefits, according to Newsom’s latest budget proposal. The state’s finance department did not provide comment on whether funds might be allocated for this purpose in the revised May budget.

In his January budget, the governor did promise to fund “efforts to increase supportive services for African-American mothers”.

The groups making the budget request contend that $7 million — half from the general fund and half in federal funds— would ultimately be a cost-saver for California, because it would stave off infant illness. It would also prevent some moms from having to lean on two public programs if they get a Medi-Cal pump first, then later seek better quality equipment from WIC.

For Lizabeth Richie of Natomas, a good pump is part of her back-to-work balancing act. She starts again on May 1 after giving birth to her son Jack on April 12. Her doctor issued her a single electric pump, which is covered by her Medi-Cal plan and draws milk from one breast at a time. It takes about 30 minutes, and it’s meant to be used just twice a day.

She says she’ll need to pump six to eight times a day while at work, and she’ll need the more expensive double electric equipment to pump faster, because her breaks are only 15 minutes long at the special education nonprofit where she is employed.

“It’s not going to be enough to keep up my supply and the demand of my baby needing more milk as he grows,” she said.

Richie says the other moms in her workplace who are on employer-provided insurance all have double-electric pumps. She’s using hers for now, but she ultimately plans to borrow a better machine from a friend.

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