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You almost certainly heard about the bombshell story former University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones told at a press conference last week.
Jones said that Gov. Tate Reeves, Mississippi’s most staunch public opponent of Medicaid expansion, acknowledged to Jones in a private meeting several years ago the benefits of expansion. The governor, Jones recalled, then said he couldn’t champion it publicly because of “my personal political interest.”
Reeves, as he often does when challenged, got nasty. He said Jones was lying and referred to Jones only as “this dude.” You know, the longtime Baptist medical missionary and deacon. The six-year chief of the state’s flagship university. The years-long leader of the state’s largest hospital and dean of the state’s only medical school. The one-time national president of the American Heart Association. Just “this dude.”
As Jones spoke last week, a crowd of curious lobbyists — including a couple of Reeves’ former staffers — gathered in the rotunda to hear what he had to say. Jones, in less than five minutes, did what so many people under the dome have never dared: he called Tate Reeves out. While doing so, he laid out a succinct case for Medicaid expansion that the governor himself couldn’t ignore.
And Reeves’ hot-headed response to the whole thing may be all we need to know about how tough an issue it will be for him during the critical 2023 election year.
First, some scene setting: State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney warned lawmakers in late 2022 that 38 hospitals across the state are in danger of closing in the short term, and every hospital in the state faces unprecedented financial concerns.
A hospital funding solution that 39 other states — including many Republican-led states — have embraced is Medicaid expansion. Economists estimate Mississippi would receive more than $1 billion per year in new revenue from expansion, and hospitals and hundreds of thousands of Mississippians would benefit directly.
Democratic legislative leaders organized the Thursday press conference to lambast Republicans for doing little to address the state’s hospital crisis. As a guest speaker, Jones was cast perfectly. He retired last year from a faculty position at University of Mississippi Medical Center after a decades-long career in medicine. He’s spent much of his career researching the impact of chronic health problems like hypertension, cardiovascular issues, and obesity on Mississippians. Years after leading the state’s largest hospital, he currently sits on the board of directors for the hospital in his hometown Hazlehurst. Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about the state’s health care system.
Some have questioned the timing of Jones’ press conference appearance. The first words out of his mouth that day should answer that question: “Believe me, the crisis is real. I’ve been involved in health care in Mississippi for more than 40 years. In those 40 years, I’ve never seen our health care system under such stress as it is now. It’s time for action to be taken.”
What got lost in the initial reporting that rightfully focused on the rare poking of the bear in the Governor’s Mansion was perhaps one of the most succinct cases for Medicaid expansion ever made in Jackson.
“First and most important is the moral imperative. Shame on us, shame on us for allowing the citizens of Mississippi to have health care problems and not have access to health care solutions. Shame on us. In the richest country in the world, in a state with millions and billions in its coffers, for us not to act on this and make health care available to all of our citizens in our state is immoral. It is immoral. It is time to act.
The second imperative is the economic imperative. In the 38 states that have expanded Medicaid, it’s been proven over and over again: states don’t lose money when they expand Medicaid, states gain money when they expand Medicaid. In an analysis of what would happen in Mississippi if Medicaid is expanded, done by a number of groups including our own state economist, there would clearly be an economic benefit for the state of Mississippi, for all Mississippians. Right now … there are families in Mississippi with health problems that are going into bankruptcy because of medical bills. Again, shame on us.
The last imperative is an important one. It’s the political imperative. The leaders of our state and elected officials are taking positions because they think it’s the politically correct thing to do for them. The Siena poll that was just published recently here in Mississippi demonstrates clearly that a majority of Mississippians are ready for all Mississippians to have access to health care. That Mississippians are ready for Medicaid expansion — not only Democrats and independents, but a majority of Republican voters are ready for Medicaid to be expanded. It’s time for elected officials to move forward and do something.”Dr. Dan Jones on Feb. 2, 2023
The political argument may be the most timely, certainly in this statewide and legislative election year. As Jones highlighted, Reeves appears to be in the vast minority on Medicaid expansion.
The Siena College poll he referenced showed that 80% of Mississippians — including 70% of Republican respondents — support Medicaid expansion. Those everyday Mississippians join a cadre of health care professionals, local elected officials, economists, and others who are calling for Medicaid expansion.
Just two days before the press conference last week, Republican legislative leaders killed 15 bills, all filed by Democrats, that would have expanded Medicaid. Three days before the press conference, Reeves dug in deeper than ever in his opposition to expansion, telling lawmakers, “You have my word that if you stand up to the left’s push for endless government-run healthcare, I will stand with you.”
Reeves disrespectfully dismissed Jones on social media the same way he’s tried to dismiss expansion: by working to distract from the real issue at hand, by name-calling, by discrediting the source or the communicators of the source. It’s deflection straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.
But with so many hospitals on the verge of closing, with so many Mississippians struggling to afford basic health care, and with the overwhelming majority of Mississippians supportive of expansion, deflection may not be enough for Reeves anymore. His opposition to expansion has become a real political liability, and as the attention of the entire state focuses more on the hospital crisis, it could likely become the defining issue of this year’s governor’s race.
Just take a look at how Reeves’ most notable challenger responded to the Jones story last week.
“When Tate Reeves has a choice between doing right by Mississippi or getting ahead in his career, he always chooses himself,” said Brandon Presley, the leading Democratic candidate for governor. “Because he has no backbone, 38 hospitals may close and more Mississippians may die because of lack of access to health care. People deserve affordable health care — plain and simple.”
Reeves and his staff might be smart to start developing a strategy a little more nuanced than firing off a mean tweet.