Minnesotans who qualify for Medicaid because of pregnancy can now maintain the coverage for 12 months after delivery — a significant extension from the previous postpartum coverage that ended at 60 days.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the change on Thursday for Minnesota, Maine, New Mexico and the District of Columbia.

As many as 7,000 more Minnesotans will have Medicaid coverage each year as a result, the federal government estimates.

"Every child in Minnesota deserves a healthy start, and that begins with the health of the mother," Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said Thursday during a news conference with Vice President Kamala Harris.

Medicaid is the state-federal health insurance program that primarily covers low-income Americans and also provides benefits to certain other groups. In Minnesota, people with somewhat higher incomes can qualify for the coverage due to pregnancy.

The Medicaid program covers 42% of all births in the United States, according to HHS.

Overall, Medicaid programs in 14 states now provide the extended postpartum benefits, HHS says. The extended benefits are an option for states under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

The agency says more than half of pregnancy-related deaths across the country occur during the 12 months after giving birth.

"The postpartum period is critical for recovering from childbirth, addressing complications of delivery, ensuring mental health, managing infant care and transitioning from obstetric to primary care," HHS said in a news release.

Minnesota's Medicaid program, which is called Medical Assistance, provides coverage to pregnant women with incomes up to 278% of federal poverty guidelines. That income threshold works out to $4,421 per month for a family of two (mother plus unborn child).

After the post-delivery coverage ends, a two-person family maintains Medicaid coverage only if their income is $2,029 per month or less. So, for those with higher incomes, that creates a Medicaid coverage "cliff" where people, depending on income, are eligible for the state's MinnesotaCare program or enter the market for private insurance.

Delaying such transitions — particularly from Medicaid to private coverage — helps ensure that patients don't see a disruption in their access to care, said Lynn Blewett, a health policy researcher at the University of Minnesota.

"The whole point of continuous coverage is for continuity of care and connection to your existing providers," Blewett said. "It's to make sure that you stay connected to the health care system."