Scott Waller, president of Mississippi Economic Council

Scott Waller, president of the state’s chamber of commerce, said business leaders are likely to weigh in on the politically charged issue of Medicaid expansion before next year’s legislative session.

“At the end of the day a healthy workforce is a vital component of moving our state and economy forward,” Waller, president of the Mississippi Economic Council said on Thursday. “… We understand access to health care is a big issue in our state, and also how to deal with uncompensated care.”

Waller said he expects MEC, which has about 11,000 members from 1,100 member companies, will soon begin a research drive, including measuring public opinion and polling MEC business leaders on Medicaid expansion and other health care issues. He said he expects the group will take a position and make policy recommendations before the 2022 legislative session begins in January.

“I’m confident this is something our leadership wants us to take a look at,” Waller said. As to why the state’s chamber of commerce hasn’t previously taken a stance on Medicaid expansion during years of debate, he said, “I think the timing now is lending itself for us to look at this issue.” He said business leaders will also likely study “what other avenues might exist.”

Most recently the Mississippi Hospital Association and other groups had begun a ballot initiative campaign to take the issue from the Legislature and put it directly before voters. But the move was halted by the state Supreme Court’s ruling in a lawsuit against the Initiative 65 medical marijuana program that the state’s ballot initiative process is constitutionally flawed.

READ MORE: ‘Human issue, not political’: Medicaid expansion ballot drive begins

Waller first broached the Medicaid expansion subject during a Thursday online forum presented by Mississippi Today on the one-year anniversary of Mississippi removing its old state flag with its divisive Confederate battle emblem. MEC and the state’s business leadership (along with many others) strongly advocating for the flag’s replacement helped move the Legislature after decades of inaction. Waller said MEC will likely weigh in on other major issues in the future, including Medicaid expansion.

Medicaid expansion has been a charged political issue in Mississippi, and brought heated — and most often partisan — debate. Mississippi, despite being the poorest state and otherwise dependent on federal spending, is one of just 12 states that has refused to expand Medicaid. Most of the state’s Republican leadership, starting with former Gov. Phil Bryant, have opposed expansion, saying they don’t want to help expand “Obamacare” and don’t trust the federal government to continue footing most of the bill.

Refusal to expand the state-federal program has left at least 200,000 “working poor” Mississippians without health coverage, with the state rejecting at least $1 billion a year in federal funds to provide it. It has also left Mississippi hospitals to pick up the tab — which now runs about $600 million a year — for providing care to those without health coverage. Six Mississippi hospitals have gone under in the last decade, and a recent study said that about half of the other rural hospitals statewide are at risk of closure — in a state that already lags the nation in access to quality health care.

Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn have recently reiterated their opposition to Medicaid expansion. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has said he’s open to discussion on the issue, one of few state GOP leaders to openly say so.

Hosemann in a recent statement said: “Key chairmen in the Senate will likely hold hearings later this year to learn more from providers, advocates, patients, and other stakeholders in the healthcare community about the delivery of healthcare in Mississippi.”

At the end of this year’s session, after lawmakers again failed to take up the Medicaid expansion issue, Hosemann noted, “We have to look in Mississippi at the delivery of health care. That is important.”

But he avoided using the words Medicaid expansion, saying, “I certainly don’t want to get bogged down by a moniker — saying I’m against this without looking at something when, if you really look at it, you may not be against that,” Hosemann said. “You may just be against some moniker.”

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.