WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.–Pregnant women in 14 states will get access to a unique model of group prenatal care and education thanks to a $1 million grant from the WellPoint Foundation to the March of Dimes.

The funding will expand two March of Dimes supported programs: a group prenatal care program called CenteringPregnancy® and the use of a toolkit that helps hospitals and healthcare providers eliminate unnecessary early deliveries.

“This grant will help more women have healthy pregnancies and full-term babies, and support the March of Dimes quality improvement initiatives to improve the health of babies by preventing preterm births,” said Alan R. Fleischman, M.D., senior vice president and medical director of the March of Dimes. “By supporting these programs, the WellPoint Foundation shows that it recognizes the importance of helping expectant mothers access needed health care services.”

CenteringPregnancy® is a model of group prenatal care delivery that has successfully reduced c-sections, preterm births and low-birthweight babies. Instead of individual appointments, women who are at similar points in their pregnancies are brought together in small groups of eight to 12. During the approximately 10 appointments, each woman receives a private, standard health assessment from a medical practitioner. What is unique about the program is that the women also learn health skills, participate in a group discussion, and develop a support network with other group members.

Building on a successful relationship between the WellPoint Foundation and the March of Dimes, the $1 million grant will support 29 CenteringPregnancy program sites–up from 11 WellPoint Foundation–supported sites in 2010–nearly tripling the Foundation’s financial support for the program overall. The grant will support CenteringPregnancy programs in 13 states: Connecticut, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

In California, grant funds will be used to implement the “Elimination of Non-medically Indicated (Elective) Deliveries Before 39 Weeks Gestational Age” toolkit at eight hospital sites. The toolkit offers best practices for clinicians and patients to help them better understand the consequences of early elective delivery and the importance of the last weeks of pregnancy. It also includes case studies from leading healthcare institutions nationwide that implemented policies and practices successfully lowering elective deliveries and preterm births.

“Complications and costs associated with unnecessary preterm births take a tremendous toll on not only families, but also the healthcare system itself,” said Lance Chrisman, executive director of the WellPoint Foundation. “This grant affirms and expands our support for the March of Dimes because we know their programs are working to reduce preterm births and produce healthier outcomes for both moms and babies across the country.”

Also included in the grant from the WellPoint Foundation is $50,000 to support the Broadcasters for Babies program in Missouri. This initiative is an awareness and professional education event focused on the most important issues related to maternal and infant health. It features live and recorded announcements and interviews involving families who have experienced preterm birth.

The $1 million grant to the March of Dimes is part of the WellPoint Foundation’s ongoing commitment to addressing health disparities and improving public health across the country.

Through its State Health Index–a state-by-state compilation of public health measures–and Healthy Generations program, the WellPoint Foundation works to identify the issues most in need of attention and directs its charitable support and volunteer efforts toward improving health in those areas. Reducing low birth weights and engaging mothers in prenatal care in their first trimester are major focus areas for the WellPoint Foundation.

In the United States, more than half a million babies are born preterm each year. Preterm birth, birth before 37 weeks gestation, is a serious health problem that costs the United States more than $26 billion annually, according to the Institute of Medicine. It is the leading cause of newborn death. Babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of a lifetime of health challenges, including breathing problems, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities and others. Even infants born just a few weeks early have higher rates of hospitalization and illness than full-term infants.

The last few weeks of pregnancy are critical to a baby because many important organs, including the brain, are not completely developed until that time.