Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann discusses legislative strategies to save hospitals and rectify staffing shortages during a press conference at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The state Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a program to give grants to Mississippi’s struggling hospitals, but the amount of money for the proposed grants is yet-to-be determined as the measure heads to the House.

“This is still a work in progress,” Senate Medicaid Chairman Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, told colleagues. “We are waiting on more information from the Hospital Association … We were initially looking at $80 million. Hospitals say they would like $230 million. We want to know what their situation was prior to COVID, what happened during it, and what their plans for the future are, so we don’t end up back in the same place. Before they come asking for a pot of gold from the Legislature, we want to know what they will do with it and what they will be doing for the future.”

Senate Bill 2372, the Mississippi Hospital Sustainability Grant Program, is headed to the House, but with many details yet to be worked out, including how much of the state’s remaining federal pandemic relief money would be used. House Speaker Philip Gunn has said he supports helping hospitals with American Rescue Plan Act money, of which the state has about $400 million remaining.

Data from January shows 28 rural hospitals, or about 38%, are at risk of closing, with 19 at risk of immediate closure, putting Mississippi fourth in the nation for percentage of rural hospitals at near-term risk of closure. The latest report is somewhat better than a previous one, that 38 rural state hospitals were at risk of closure. But health officials say the state — which has long struggled to provide health care for its people — still faces a crisis.

READ MORE: ‘Slightly more breathing room’: Fewer rural hospitals at risk of closure, but threat still looms

There was brief debate on the measure Thursday before the Senate passed it.

Sen. Rod Hickman, D-Macon, said he supports the help for hospitals, but questioned how it will be administered and what agency would oversee it. “I just want to be sure it’s administered properly,” he said.

The bill says the Health Department would administer it, but Blackwell said that is still a matter to be worked out.

Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, questioned why Mississippi hospitals need a state bailout.

“During COVID, we saw a lot of money infused into hospitals,” Hill said. “I just can’t see the math where they’re in worse shape now. All that money was poured in here during COVID and now they’re broke.”

The grant program the Senate approved Thursday is one of several bills Hosemann announced at the legislative session’s start last month to address the health care crisis.

Hospitals, doctors, and other health experts have long advocated for Mississippi to join 39 other states and accept federal money to expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor. Hospitals struggle in part from eating costs of treating poor people with no health coverage, and expansion would provide Mississippi about $1 billion a year in federal funds.

Hosemann has said he’s open to discussing expansion, but Gunn and Gov. Tate Reeves oppose it, and all bills proposing expansion are now dead this legislative session.

READ MORE: Every Medicaid expansion bill dies without debate or vote

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, spoke to expansion on the Senate floor before Thursday’s vote.

“You can put $100 million in this (hospital grant) account, and have $100 million,” Blount said. “Or you can put $100 million in this account and have $1 billion. That’s the choice you are making.”

Other measures pending for Hosemann’s hospital plan would:

  • Change “anti-trust” laws and other state legal barriers to “collaboration and consolidation” of hospitals in Mississippi.
  • Create a nurse student loan repayment program for those who agree to work in Mississippi hospitals, an effort to address a statewide nursing shortage estimated at 3,000 nurses. Lawmakers created a program last year, but glitches in the law prevented the program from going into effect.
  • Provide $20 million in grants for community colleges, universities and other programs that train nurses and other health workers. Hosemann said many programs have long waiting lists and shortage of faculty and equipment. The proposed program, also using ARPA money, would provide 75% of the grants to community colleges, and the remainder to universities or other programs.
  • Provide more money for hospital residency and fellowship programs with ARPA money. Hosemann said residency and fellowship programs in medical or surgical specialty areas have been shown to help retain doctors in areas where they do their residencies or fellowships.

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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.