NESHOBA COUNTY FAIR — Republican Gov. Tate Reeves at the Neshoba County Fair gave conflicting answers to reporters on how seriously he views Mississippi’s worsening hospital crisis and what he’s proposing to fix the problem.
Reeves, running for a second term, initially indicated that hospitals around the state laying off employees and slashing medical services was not a real campaign issue, but he later said there’s “no doubt” state leaders should do more to improve health care infrastructure.
Mississippi Today initially asked the first-term governor last week what his reaction was to hospitals and medical facilities laying off employees. The governor chuckled, didn’t substantively respond and brushed off the question.
“I’m shocked that you decided to take the position of the CEO of the Hospital Association today,” Reeves answered. “The fact of the matter is we know that my opponent can’t talk about my record. He can’t talk about what he believes in, so he’s making up all these things that don’t make any sense.”
But another reporter later asked the governor how he believes the state Legislature should address the burgeoning issue, prompting a more serious answer from the Republican official.
“We’ve got to have more availability of health care throughout our state, we’ve got to have more accessibility to health care throughout our state and we’ve got to make sure that we can make health care more affordable throughout our state,” Reeves said.
Much like in 2019, Medicaid coverage and access to health care are some of the primary issues between the two leading candidates in this year’s governor’s race.
And while medical infrastructure in the state has been fragile for several years, it’s gotten increasingly worse during the current statewide election cycle.
Almost half of Mississippi’s rural hospitals could close in the near future, according to a newly updated report from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform.
Here is a list of hospitals that have recently announced layoffs or cuts to services:
- North Mississippi Health Services in Tupelo announced last month it was laying off employees, cutting their hours and reassigning them to different jobs.
- Ochsner Health, which operates several facilities in Mississippi, announced in May it was cutting hundreds of jobs.
- Memorial Hospital in Gulfport announced layoffs just days before the Oschner announcement.
- In June, St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson announced it was cutting 5.5% of its workforce and ending its behavioral health program.
- KPC Promise, a hospital in Vicksburg, closed last May.
- And Delta Health last year closed its NICU unit, leaving the Delta region, one of the most impoverished areas in the nation, without a neonatal center.
Reeves told the press on Thursday that he believes bringing “better, more higher-paying jobs” that provide private insurance to employees, not Medicaid, can improve access to health care. He believes certificate of need, or CON, laws requiring medical facilities to seek approval from a state agency before they create a new health care center should be eliminated.
Presley, currently north Mississippi’s utility regulator, has repeatedly hammered the first-term governor at campaign events for his response to struggling hospitals, often saying that the governor is “twiddling his thumbs” while hospitals lose more revenue.
“Tate Reeves doesn’t give a damn about the Greenwood Leflore Hospital,” Presley told reporters Wednesday night in Greenwood.
The Democratic candidate believes one of the main ways hospitals can stay afloat is for state leaders to expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor, something the GOP-dominated Legislature and Reeves have resisted for years.
Most hospital administrators have pushed for state leaders to expand the federal program, though they acknowledge the policy wouldn’t be a panacea.
Iris Stacker, the CEO of Delta Health System in Greenville, said last month she supported Medicaid expansion because it would reduce the amount of uncompensated care that medical workers provide to patients without health insurance.
Mississippi is one of 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid. The 40 other U.S. states that have expanded the program have seen a significant drop in uncompensated care costs post-expansion. Louisiana, which expanded Medicaid in 2016, saw a 55% decrease in uncompensated care costs for rural hospitals.
Economic experts say the remaining states, many in the Deep South, would experience an economic boon if officials expanded the program. Studies show Mississippi is leaving more than $1 billion in new health care related revenue on the table every year it does not expand.
Medical leaders have pleaded for state leaders to expand the program under the federal Affordable Care Act to draw down on additional funds. If the program were expanded, the federal government would likely cover 90% of the costs while the state contributed a 10% matching rate.
Reeves is expected to defeat John Witcher and David Hardigree in the GOP primary on Tuesday. The winner of the party primary will compete against Presley, the only Democratic candidate, in the Nov. 7 general election.