MEC’s annual Hobnob looks at healthcare, Medicaid expansion, state economy

“Only positive Mississippi spoken here,” a phrase coined by former Gov. Kirk Fordice, was the theme for most politicians at the annual Hobnob event sponsored by the State Economic Council.

But two politicians — Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney — devoted much of their speech at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob to the state’s struggling health care system and financial difficulties that many of the state hospitals are facing.

“Would you locate (a business) in a state that doesn’t have health care?” Chaney asked the crowd of about 1,000 mostly business leaders gathered at the Mississippi Coliseum to hear from the state’s political leadership. “I don’t think you have.”

Hosemann said the Senate will examine health issues during the next session. He also said that legislative leadership should not be scared away from efforts to improve health care by “this X word.”

Hosemann was presumably referring to the expansion of Medicaid where, through mainly federal funds, the state could provide health care for about 200,000 poor Mississippians, mostly people working in jobs that do not offer health insurance. Hospitals have argued that expanding Medicaid like 38 other states have done would help them financially.

At a minimum, the lieutenant governor said the state should extend Medicaid coverage for mothers from 60 days after birth to one year.

“How can we not be pro-life and pro-child at the same time?” Hosemann asked. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”

While not definitively endorsing the expansion of Medicaid, Hosemann said the state should look for the most efficient and inexpensive way to improve access to health care in the state. Many argue that expanding Medicaid with the federal government paying most of the costs would be the best way to do it.

Chaney told reporters after the speech that he supports Medicaid expansion and that he believes Hosemann does, too. But passing Medicaid expansion will be difficult with Governor Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn in opposition.

Reeves kept his speech positive, not talking about health care.

But after the speech, he reiterated to reporters his opposition to Medicaid expansion.

“I am opposed to expanding Obamacare in Mississippi…” Reeves said. “Without a doubt we have seen certain health care institutions in our state and across the country that are struggling, because of leadership decisions that have been made in these specific cases. The pandemic certainly has not made it easier.”

Reeves said one solution to Mississippi’s health problems is to remove the state’s certificate of need (CON) requirements. CON laws regulate the approval of major projects or expansions for health care services, with the goal of controlling health care costs by reducing duplicative services and restricting where new facilities can be built and operated. Mississippi and 34 other states have different CON laws.

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Reeves said this inhibits competition, and “competition tends to reduce costs.”

“For example, the University of Mississippi Medical Center doesn’t have to adhere to the CON rules, but everyone else does,” Reeves said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Opponents of removing the CON process say they fear it will result in even fewer hospitals and other health facilities in poor and underpopulated areas.

On other topics, Reeves said Mississippi is in historically great financial shape and promised to continue pushing to eliminate the state’s personal income tax.

“You have my word that as long as I’m governor, I will never stop fighting to completely eliminate the income tax in Mississippi,” Reeves said. He said this will make the state more competitive for economic development with Texas, Florida and Tennessee – states that do not have personal income taxes.

“Mississippi in almost every category has climbed the national ladder,” Reeves said. He said the state has seen a record $3.5 million in capital investment so far this year with “more capital investment in 2022 than we saw in the five years before I became governor.” He said the state has made great gains in K-12 education, including increasing the graduation rate from 72% to 88.5% during his time in office, now above the national average of 86.5%.

Reeves promised to push for “good jobs with above-average wages,” and quoted from his first State of the State address: “At the end of my time as governor, we will measure our success in the wages of our workers.”

According to a recent US Census report, Mississippi has the lowest median household income in the nation at $46,511, compared to $67,521 nationally. Mississippi also has the highest poverty rate, with 18.8% of people living at or below the poverty level.

Chaney spent much of his speech criticizing the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi for their failure to resolve their contract dispute, which impacts tens of thousands of Mississippians. People insured through Blue Cross have been out of network with UMMC since April 1st.

“Both sides in this dispute are wrong,” Chaney said. “UMMC is asking too much, and Blue Cross can give more.”

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Chaney later told reporters that he believed the dispute could be resolved, however, in the coming days.

Chaney said that UMMC is “using (patients) as pawns for a money grab… On the other hand, Blue Cross is not right.”

The Republican insurance commissioner also told the crowd that UMMC has written a letter to a Medicaid managed care company demanding a higher reimbursement rate. If UMMC is not included in the network for the managed care company, this could impact health care for many Mississippians covered by Medicaid.

There are three companies — Magnolia, United and Molina — that have managed care contracts with the Mississippi Division of Medicaid. Under the contracts, the companies provide health care services for Medicaid patients at a set fee paid by the state. Under this process, companies reimburse health care providers for services provided to Medicaid recipients.

In response to Chaney’s comments, Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for Clinical Affairs, told Mississippi Today: “In the course of normal business operations, all health care institutions enter into discussions with paying partners on new or existing contracts, sometimes several months before the end of a current agreement. These routine engagements are necessary to ensure that the contracts meet the needs of our patients who are members of their plan hi.

He added, “Currently, we are in normal contract discussions with Magnolia Health Plan on the agreement that covers the care UMMC provides to its Medicaid managed health plan members. Our intention is that these standardized discussions will soon lead to a new agreement and we will continue our strong collaboration with Magnolia and the healthcare relationship with its members.”

Chaney also predicted that efforts to negotiate a lease agreement between Greenwood LeFlore Hospital and UMMC would be unsuccessful and that the financially troubled hospital would close, negatively affecting health care throughout the Delta.

Chaney said the state’s health problems must be solved if the state is going to thrive.

Also speaking were Auditor Shad White, Secretary of State Michael Watson, Attorney General Lynn Fitch, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, Agriculture and Trade Commissioner Andy Gipson and Treasurer David McRae.

Gipson, wearing his cowboy hat, sang part of the song “A Country Boy Can Survive” before praising the work of Mississippi farmers.

Watson, who has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate at some point — perhaps even against Reeves in the 2023 Republican primary — said of next year’s election, “We need of leaders who care more about Mississippi than their careers. I hope you will help me elect those people.”

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While not specific, Watson referred to some “tough times” possibly ahead for the state in terms of health care.

White said that as an auditor, you can “look under the hood of Mississippi government,” and see what’s working and what’s not. He said the state’s workforce is the biggest problem he sees, and offered four ideas for improvement.

“First, an earned income tax credit,” White said. “If you go from unemployed to employed, you will get a tax cut … 29 other states have this … It is one of the best things to get people off the couch and out of the side and work. .. There are many people who just want to give a bunch of money to the poor. That is not going to suck our economy.”

White said the state should use its federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money — the source of major fraud and misspending that White’s office has uncovered — to fund tax credits, such as 20 other states do.

“Secondly, we have to deal with the brain drain,” White said. “From 2015 to 2019 we spent $1.5 to $2 billion on higher education, and we kept only 50% of the graduates in Mississippi.”

White said his office has a fellowship program that helps cover tuition for prospective auditors as long as they stay with his office for two years. He said this could be replicated for other professions in the state.

“The third, no father,” said White. He said too many children grow up in broken homes and are not prepared to succeed when they become adults. He said: “There are all kinds of social ills from not having engaged fathers at home.” White said the Junior ROTC program in Jackson Public Schools is an example of a program that helps with this problem — with retired military men mentoring youth. He said the program at JPS has a “100% graduation rate.”

Fourth, White said, “is the city of Jackson.”

“Jackson is our number one talent magnet in this state,” White said, “with 30% of our graduates coming to work in Hinds County.”

He said, “Jackson’s magnet will go out unless we learn to pick up trash, keep water clean and not be the country’s per capita homicide leader.”

— Article credit to Geoff Pender and Bobby Harrison of Mississippi Today —


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