The Yazoo County Health Department in Yazoo City, Miss., Tuesday, October 18, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

As the Mississippi health care crisis worsens and threatens to imminently shutter hospitals in the Mississippi Delta, the state Department of Health is taking steps to prepare for the impending disaster.

The Mississippi State Department of Health, an agency that has been gutted by budget cuts and weakened services over the past decade, was not staffed nor funded to take on the full burden of replacing health care services lost if hospitals close.

But State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney recently told lawmakers the department, in anticipation of an increase of health care deserts in the Delta, has begun assessing how it can help.

“We’re studying where health care deserts are emerging or we think they’re going to be,” Edney told members of the Senate Public Health Committee on Nov. 21, adding that the Health Department increasing services is “usually not a good thing.” 

“We’re the provider of last resort,” he continued. “We’re there for public health. When you see us in perinatal care, hypertension, diabetes management – that means these communities aren’t being served.”

While more than 38 hospitals across the state are at risk of closing, the Mississippi Delta — the poorest region of the state with already dismal health outcomes — is most susceptible to the crisis. In August, the Delta’s only neonatal intensive care unit in Greenville closed. Greenwood Leflore Hospital has eliminated labor and delivery and other major services over the last several months. Today, the Greenwood hospital’s future is uncertain after negotiations with the University of Mississippi Medical Center to enter into a lease agreement abruptly fell through last month.

Additionally, Sharkey Issaquena Hospital and several other Delta hospitals are in dire financial straits. 

A recent report from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Reform shows that over half of rural hospitals in Mississippi – or 38 – are at risk of closing. The state has the highest percentage of rural hospitals at immediate risk of closing in the nation, and hospitals as a whole are in a deficit of more than $200 million in 2022, according to the Mississippi Hospital Association.

A 2019 report from the consulting firm Navigant revealed a similar statistic as the one from 2022: half of rural hospitals were at risk of closure then, too. But the difference now is the severity of the situation, said Ryan Kelly, executive director of the Mississippi Rural Hospital Association. 

“Hospitals that were bleeding slowly are now bleeding quicker,” said Kelly. “But the underlying problem is still the same.” 

With no clear solutions in sight, Edney said the Health Department will do what it can to strengthen the “safety net” in these underserved areas.

“We’ve already got an action plan in place,” Edney told lawmakers. 

But when Mississippi Today followed up with the state Health Department and submitted a records request for that plan, department officials responded “… as of now we have no plan on paper.”

Mississippi Today then asked for clarification and details of the plan Edney referenced. A Health Department spokesperson emailed a statement from Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection.

“Our next steps in plan development will be to meet with Delta Community Health Center leaders and coordinate needs and efforts with our Field Services office that coordinates care in county health departments around the state,” the statement read. 

Mississippi Today then asked for an interview with Craig or someone else with the department, and the reporter was told she could email questions.

The department said it is “currently evaluating” what services might be needed when responding to a question about whether the focus would first be on the Delta and maternity and infant care. 

“Maternal and infant services are one of the service areas we are evaluating,” said Craig in the email. 

The state Health Department has closed 10 county health departments in the past decade, nine of which were closed in 2016. It also reduced hours in “several” county health departments around the state, though department officials declined to provide a specific number. 

In 2016, it announced it would no longer be providing maternity services at the county health departments.

The Health Department’s mission is to promote and protect the health of Mississippians. The agency does surveillance for diseases such as West Nile virus, flu and sexually transmitted infections, offers disease and injury prevention programming and information and other public health efforts. It also oversees drinking water testing, restaurant permits and inspections, on-site wastewater and sewage system regulation. It is responsible for licensing and regulating child care facilities, nursing homes, and other health care facilities. 

There is no timeline for the implementation of the safety net Edney referred to, the department said. 

Correction 12/8/21: A previous version of this story identified Ryan Kelly, executive director of the Mississippi Rural Hospital Association, by the incorrect name.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.