OUR OPINION: It’s simple — We need to address the state’s health care crisis

Published 4:00 am Sunday, January 22, 2023

If it’s what the majority of the electorate wants, shouldn’t we be able to get it?

That’s a simple question with a complex answer, particularly when it comes to the nearly 300,000 working poor in Mississippi without health care coverage.

A poll released this week by Mississippi Today found that 80 percent of Mississippians, including 70 percent of Republicans, support Medicaid expansion in our state.

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But our leaders — from Gov. Tate Reeves to the majority of state legislators — do not.

Mississippi is one of only 11 states to not participate in Medicaid expansion, rejecting nearly $1 billion in federal funds each year that could be used to help provide health care in one of the poorest states in the nation.

And that stubborn refusal to expand a stigmatized program — one that admittedly has its flaws — leaves our state facing a financial and health care crisis. Because hospitals have a duty to provide care regardless of an individual’s ability to pay for that care, hospitals in Mississippi provided almost $600 million in uncompensated care in 2021, more than twice that amount provided in 2010. In an industry fraught with challenges, uncompensated care combines with skyrocketing costs to create a nearly insurmountable hurdle for health care providers. State health care leaders have warned that 38 hospitals throughout Mississippi — including some in the Delta that are the only regional hospitals — are in danger of closing.

Some progress was made this week, with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann proposing an $80 million grant program for rural hospitals in danger of closing. Hospitals that receive money would have to submit information about how many patients they have and what kinds of medical services they offer — data that the state could use in planning for the health care industry in the state.

But Hosemann also said Wednesday that he will not push to expand Medicaid coverage to people in low-paying jobs that don’t provide private insurance — a position that puts him in line with other Republican leaders, including Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn.

State Medical Officer Dr. Dan Edney, who like Hosemann, hails from Vicksburg, has also voiced support for reform in Mississippi’s health care system, stating in November that 54 percent of the state’s rural hospitals are at risk of closing.

If those hospitals are forced to close, we will have twice failed to provide care for those most in need in our state. And that is shameful, especially when it can be avoided.

The Mississippi State Medical Association and the hospital association have lobbied for a palatable compromise in this partisan legislative battle. Earlier this month, the MSMA addressed what it called the immediate crisis that “progressively engulfs us” and offered suggestions for actions that lawmakers could take this session, from raising the income eligibility for Medicaid to considering a model similar to Arkansas, which would provide access to care for working Mississippians through the purchase of private insurance with state funding for qualified recipients to restructuring the healthcare delivery system across the state.

The MSMA solutions are not the only ones being offered, nor are they necessarily the right solution for all of Mississippi. The point is that the MSMA, and others, are offering solutions and suggestions that deserve serious consideration and action by the legislature and consideration by the governor.

Most of us in Mississippi see the need for expanding healthcare coverage to our working poor, regardless of our political beliefs, and we deserve state leaders willing to put aside partisan politics to focus on finding a viable and workable solution.

And while that might not be simple to do, it’s absolutely necessary.