Rep. Jason White, R-West Credit: Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

The University of Mississippi Medical Center is closer to stepping outside of Jackson.

On Tuesday the House passed, on a 91-21 vote, legislation that would loosen antitrust regulations on the center. The bill, which received both heated debate and bipartisan support, makes it easier for UMMC to partner with private hospitals and healthcare providers across the state.

Supporters called the bill a “lifeline” for rural hospitals around the state because  UMMC could potentially strike up partnerships with struggling institutions.

Critics of House Bill 926, known as the Healthcare Collaboration Act, questioned whether loosening restrictions would give UMMC an unfair advantage over private institutions.

“I’m telling you, those of us in the rural areas in the Delta, this is a lifeline right now,” said Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville. “So I’m asking you, let’s please all work for this bill because this is the best thing I’ve ever seen in my 23 years in the Legislature to help healthcare, especially in rural healthcare in the Delta.”

The bill would shield mergers between the medical center and health providers in the state from federal anti-trust scrutiny. The bill’s author, Rep. Jason White, R-West, used phrases like “loosening the handcuffs” and “leveling the playing field” when describing how the policy change could help UMMC.

“They’re asking for some flexibity to be able to be lean like these private (hospitals),” White said. “This is a work in progress. I don’t want to tip the scales in (UMMC’s) favor, but we want to hopefully level it from some of the regulatory burdens.”

Currently, UMMC has to go through the same procurement processes as other state agencies, unlike private hospitals. Collaborations often fall apart in the meantime.

“There have been instances in the past where the medical center had the opportunity to create partnerships with organizations around the state,” said Kevin Cook, UMMC’s chief executive officer of health systems. “But because of the legal structure under which we operate, the partnerships took so long that the momentum failed or it was decided it couldn’t be created given the constraints we operate under.”

But legislators still scrutinized parts of the bill, particularly a section that gives the Board of the Institutes of Higher Learning oversight of the new collaborations by appointing to help the board manage UMMC and the potential collaborations.

“We are giving away all of our authority to these agencies, to these folks who’ve got these phone lines and constituents can’t get through to them. And frankly I’m sick of it,” said Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel.

But White pushed for the bill’s passage anyway and stressed that because the bill contains a reverse repealer, many of the sections would be open to amendment after the bill’s passage.

Under the bill’s current guidelines, any partnership that UMMC strikes would not be subject to open meeting laws and other “ethics in government laws.” However, partnerships between private hospitals would not be exempt from federal anti-trust law.

Representatives from districts with strong area hospitals had complained that this could give UMMC a leg up over those systems.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, whose district abuts North Mississippi Medical Center, acknowledged these concerns but said the entire state would benefit from strengthening Mississippi’s sole teaching hospital.

“I can understand why some of you have some heartburn over this bill,” said Holland. “But this is the mothership of healthcare in our state. It only seems right to me that this group needs the empowerment that we can give them.”

White acknowledged that the bill had generated a “great debate” since its debut in the House public health committee in January. And he said he had worked to address some of these concerns by adding an amendment to give smaller community hospitals more flexibility when entering into partnerships and leasing their facilities.

“This is an attempt to give these organizations some relief. In a place where clinics and hospitals are failing and they want to partner with UMMC, this allows them to speed up the process and be a player in that game,” White said.

Legislators also removed a section of the bill that would have loosened regulations on how UMMC procures equipment. Marc Rolph, director of public affairs for UMMC, said legislators deleted the provision to get the bill passed, but he’s hopeful that it will be added back as legislators continue to revise the bill.

Even some of the bill’s biggest critics ultimately voiced their support for the legislation, which passed the House, 91 to 21.

Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel Credit: Gil Ford Photography

“We always want to work to improve the quality of healthcare in the state. But the other great thing that this healthcare collaboration proposal will do is allow our academic teaching facility to have more slots to train more physicians. That is to me what is critical,” Scott said.

The legislation is modeled on a nearly identical bill passed in Alabama in 2016, which loosened similar restrictions on the medical school at University of Alabama-Birmingham. Alabama’s governor signed that bill into law in April, despite the fact that it met resistance from the Federal Trade Commission, which said it could result in higher prices for consumers.

Representatives from UMMC acknowledged these concerns in a separate conversation in January, but said collaborations have become a necessary part of the 21st century health landscape. Other private hospitals in Mississippi have seized on the idea of collaborations. In the last decade, Baptist Health Systems has partnered with half a dozen smaller hospitals around the state.

“All of the aspects of healthcare delivery and the way it’s done have changed a lot in the last five years. And the pace of everything has sped up, and everyone around us is going at 75 miles an hour. We need to be able to speed up the way we do things,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs at UMMC.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.