Ocean Springs Hospital on Wednesday, May 17, 2023, in Ocean Springs, Miss. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Study after study details how expanding Medicaid will create jobs, grow the state economy and provide a boost to Mississippi’s beleaguered hospitals.

The issue of expanding Medicaid will be hotly debated in this year’s gubernatorial election. Incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves adamantly opposes Medicaid expansion, while Democratic challenger Brandon Presley is an ardent supporter. It seems at times the issue is viewed solely in terms of politics — whether supporting or opposing Medicaid expansion can help a candidate win elections.

What often is lost in the conversation, though, is the true intent of Medicaid expansion: to improve health and save lives. And there are studies that indicate expanding Medicaid does save lives.

States were allowed to start expanding Medicaid to provide health care coverage to primarily the working poor in 2014. A November 2019 study by the national nonprofit Center for Budget and Policy Priorities attributed the premature deaths of 540 Mississippians between the ages of 55 to 64 to the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid. The same study said that 19,000 lives had been saved in the states that had expanded Medicaid.

At the time that study was conducted, 16 states had not expanded Medicaid. Today, Mississippi is one of just 10 states refusing to expand Medicaid.

“Over a four-year period, the lives of 540 older people were lost because Mississippi did not expand Medicaid to low-income adults,” the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities study said.

Yes, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities is viewed as a progressive but respected group. Several other groups, though, have reached the same conclusion — that expanding Medicaid saves lives.

A 2021 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation said, “Studies find that expansion was associated with significant declines in mortality related to certain specific conditions, in some instances limited to certain subgroups. These findings include decreased mortality associated with different types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and liver disease.”

The KFF report also said, “A 2020 national study found that expansion was associated with a significant 3.6% decrease in all-cause mortality, the majority of which was accounted for by a significant 1.93% decrease in health care amenable mortality. Another study found that expansion was associated with reductions in health care amenable mortality and in mortality not due to drug overdose.”

“Health care amenable mortality” is a fancy way of saying deaths that should not have occurred if adequate and timely health care was available.

If a person with high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol receives adequate preventative medical care, he or she is less likely to have a life-threatening stroke or heart attack. Presumably, a person with Medicaid would be more likely to seek out such medical care.

Similar arguments can be made about a host of diseases including cancer, diabetes and others.

The study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities focused on those aged 55 to 64 – those who, in general terms, are nearing retirement. Those are the people most likely to be impacted by certain diseases and whose lives can be prolonged with proper medical care to combat high blood pressure or other potentially life-threatening conditions.

“Research shows that Medicaid expansion increased the share of low-income adults using medications to control chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes,” the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities study found. “The new study finds particularly clear evidence of a drop in mortality from conditions like these, which are amenable to medication and other treatment.”

Common sense also would conclude that if people are getting those treatments they can work longer and pay taxes.

Mississippi is consistently last or next to last among the 50 states in what economists say is the important category of the labor force participation rate that measures the number of people pre-retirement age who are working. According to the latest numbers, Mississippi’s labor force participation rate of 54.8% is next to last, leading only West Virginia. That labor force participation rate is a drag on the state economy, experts say. The national average is 62.2%.

The issue is exacerbated in Mississippi due to the fact the state also has one of the highest percentage of people who are disabled and most likely not working. It is hard for a person who has had a stroke that left him or her with a physical impairment to do certain jobs.

Of course, in Mississippi, that person who had been working but is now disabled most likely would not have sought out preventative medical care because he or she could not afford it. They certainly didn’t have coverage from Medicaid, which has not been expanded to provide coverage to primarily the working poor.

Because of that lack of medical treatment, those people are more apt to die — according, at least, to many of these studies.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.