Coalition pushes for Medicaid expansion

Hattiesburg American

Emily Ham Price
With Mississippi Medicaid set to expire July 1, the Mississippi Health Care Access Coalition met with Pine Belt residents Saturday to discuss the program’s future.

Linda Dixon Rigsby, Mississippi Center for Justice health law director, said she and fellow coalition members are traveling across the state on a listening tour to help relay the message to residents and state legislators that expanding Medicaid in Mississippi has its benefits.

“The Mississippi Health Care Access Coalition is a non-profit, tax-exempt coalition of organizations that was formed to advocate for the expansion of Mississippi’s Medicaid program,” Rigsby said. “People need to understand the positive impact of expanding Medicaid.”

But for the past month, talk of Medicaid has been quieted within the state’s Legislature.

The Legislature ended its 2013 session in early April at a partisan impasse over Medicaid. Democrats, pushing to expand the program per Obamacare to cover up to 300,000 of the working poor in the state, blocked passage of reauthorization and funding bills after the House Republican leadership refused to allow debate or a vote on expansion.

Coalition members said they hope Gov. Phil Bryant calls a special session where legislators can participate in an informed discussion pertaining to Medicaid.

Kim Robinson, Children’s Defense Fund program associate and advocate, said she hopes Bryant will be open to consider the good she and fellow coalition members believe Medicaid expansion would do for the state.

“We feel like we want an equal seat at the table to be able to discuss and maybe help him have a better understanding of what it would do economically for the state if we could expand Medicaid and offer those services to more people,” Robinson said.

Bryant, House Speaker Philip Gunn and other GOP leaders oppose the expansion, saying it will eventually break the state budget. Democrats, hospitals and other supporters say the state can’t afford to turn down health coverage for the poor and billions of promised federal dollars for the expansion. They say the state likely will suffer cuts in other federal health care funding.

According to the coalition’s studies presented at Saturday’s forum, if the state expands its Medicaid program more than 9,000 new jobs will be created in Mississippi by 2020, and the state will save money by reducing the amount of money it spends on emergency room care for the uninsured.

Panelist John Whitfield said Medicaid expansion would help Mississippi save money in the long run.

“An unhealthy society is a society that is not going to be productive,” Whitfield said. “If I have insurance, I’m more likely to engage in preventive care. And if I engage in preventive care, I’m more likely than not going to find those problems early on that, if not taken care of right, then will become more costly and not just costly financially, but costly from a health prospective.”

Whitfield, who serves as the associate minister at D’Iberville’s Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, said the only way an honest, open discussion about Medicaid expansion will occur in the Legislature is if the people of Mississippi voice their desire for it.

“The Mississippi Affordable Care Act is not a be-all, end-all to the financial problems that families face, but it will serve a very vital part of the solution to helping families to stay on their feet,” she said.

“The only way this is going to come up at this time is if there is a special session called by the governor. It is anticipated that that is what will actually happen, but it’s not going to happen if people don’t start picking up the telephone and contacting the governor, the speaker of the house and their state legislators.”