Wisconsin’s practice of collecting birth costs from unmarried fathers could be preventing women from obtaining appropriate prenatal care for fear of abuse, according to a recent report.

Advocacy and Benefits Counseling for Health, Inc., a Madison non-profit law firm, released a report Monday that suggested Wisconsin should discontinue collecting birth costs from unmarried fathers. The report outlined concerns with the state’s policy of requiring unmarried pregnant women to identify the father on Medicaid or BadgerCare applications. According to the report, the father is then required to pay for medical expenses associated with the birth of the child and can be prosecuted or sued if he fails to comply.

According to ABC for Health Executive Director Bobby Peterson, the identification requirement often scares pregnant women away from applying for health insurance, because they wish to avoid identifying the father and fear retaliation from him.

“You create tension between single women and the fathers early in the relationship and there may be women who are not getting the care they need because they don’t want to identify the father, because it may result in physical or emotional abuse,” Peterson said.

Married women are not required to identify the father when applying for health insurance in the state. The report also said Wisconsin is one of nine states that bring charges against unmarried fathers in order to collect birth costs, which can include jail time in some counties.

The report found Wisconsin collected more than $18 million in birth costs from unmarried fathers last year, more than any other state with similar policies. It also raised concern that recent budget cuts to child support enforcement may incentivize local offices to act more aggressively in obtaining birth costs from unmarried fathers.

Peterson also cited elevated infant mortality rates across Wisconsin as a possible consequence of the birth cost recovery policies.

“[This issue] oftentimes affects low-income, unmarried parents and puts pressures on the family, leading to women not getting prenatal care,” Peterson said. “It could lead to poor birth outcomes, meaning premature death, premature birth and problems with lifelong health.”

Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, also addressed the issue of infant mortality, saying birth costs can act as barriers that prevent women and children from receiving the necessary prenatal care, which can have devastating consequences.

“It raises a really important concern for those of us who are concerned about infant mortality and maternal and child health,” Roys said. “These women are vulnerable, and we should not be putting hurdles in their path as they seek to get that basic healthcare they need to have healthy babies.”

Wisconsin Medical Society Senior Vice President Mark Grapentine said while the report includes interesting insights into the birth costs debate, the organization has to fully analyze the possible ramifications of the report before taking a stance on the issue.

Peterson asserted the costs of collecting birth costs from unmarried fathers have outweighed the benefits of the policy.

“We’re not saying there shouldn’t be any father responsibility to pay for the support of the child,” Peterson said. “What we’re saying is Wisconsin, like 41 other states, should stop collecting birth costs from the unmarried fathers, because the risks that women are not going to get prenatal care for these babies will cost a lot more to the system and society.”