Expanding Medicaid would improve state’s health, economy

Published in the Clarion Ledger

Linda Rigsby

We have reached a policy crossroads and can opt for one of two paths: We can deny working families access to the care they need, or we can extend Medicaid benefits to newly-eligible residents to spur job growth and ensure more Mississippians can live healthier, more productive lives.

Emergency room visits do not amount to health care coverage, and having a large uninsured population raises the cost of medical care for all of us. Without adequate access to preventive care and treatment for chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes, our uninsured neighbors and family members have few options besides the ER for care. Many suffer ill health or even die from preventable or treatable illnesses.

Expanding Medicaid — in line with an Affordable Care Act provision aimed at ensuring every American has affordable health insurance — would promote healthier families and, through earlier diagnosis and treatment of diseases, save lives. It would also create jobs and spur much-needed economic growth.

Medicaid expansion will give Mississippians the health care security they need to perform their jobs more effectively, search for employment or seek educational qualifications. A majority of those eligible for Medicaid expansion are hard-working adults who cannot access coverage through their jobs.

Expanding Medicaid would boost Mississippi’s economy as a whole. It would bring billions in much-needed federal investment to our struggling state. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that for every one dollar Mississippi invests in Medicaid expansion, we will receive between $14 and $15 from the federal government. Those billions will go toward employing doctors, nurses and other health providers, meaning we can create high-quality jobs in the health care industry and ensure better health for our state’s residents — all for a 1 percent increase in the state budget.

Even Gov. Phil Bryant says that Mississippi can strengthen its economy by expanding the health care industry, which he calls a key “economic driver” in the state. Supporting Medicaid expansion would work in complete harmony with this vision.

Beyond that, treating diseases before they turn into health emergencies is far more cost-effective than emergency room care. Too often, our community hospitals are overwhelmed by uncompensated care — treating sick patients who don’t have health insurance and have no choice but to go to emergency rooms for treatment.

Mississippi has the fifth-highest rate of uninsured residents in the country. Almost one in five residents lacks health insurance. At the same time, Mississippi has some of the highest rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity in the United States. Expanding Medicaid will not only be an economic boon to the state, it will also save lives. To secure the health and economy of our state, it is time to expand Medicaid access.

Linda Rigsby is the health law director of the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing racial and economic justice.