Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White, R-West, calls out the vote count of a bill in the House Chamber at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Republican Rep. Jason White, heir apparent to the House speakership, said Medicaid expansion, long a bugaboo for the state GOP, will be on the table and at least thoroughly vetted as a solution to Mississippi’s health care crisis next year.

“I think we as Republicans have probably earned a little bit of the bad rap we get on health care in Mississippi,” White said in a Thursday interview with Mississippi Today. “Part of that is that we haven’t had a full-blown airing or discussion of Medicaid expansion. We’ve just said, ‘No.’

“Now, I’m not out here on the curb pushing Medicaid expansion, but we are going to have full discussions on that and on all facets of health care in Mississippi,” White said. “… Right or wrong, we have been wearing the yoke of, ‘Y’all haven’t even considered this or dug down into the numbers.’ And that’s true.”

Mississippi is one of 10 states to refuse federal tax dollars to expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor. Meanwhile, leaders in one of the poorest, unhealthiest states are leaving more than $1 billion a year in federal funding on the table with the refusal, even as people and hospitals statewide struggle. More than half of the state’s rural hospitals are at risk of closure, and even larger hospitals have been forced to slash services for budget reasons.

For a decade, even as hospitals, other state leaders and growing numbers of lawmakers and voters clamor for Medicaid expansion, state Republican leaders have adamantly opposed it, often without giving empirical reasons for their stance against “Obamacare.”

Gov. Tate Reeves and outgoing House Speaker Philip Gunn have been two staunch opponents in recent years, with Gunn refusing even to hold hearings on the proposal.

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Incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has expressed openness to discussing expansion, but has not pushed the idea with Gunn and Reeves poised to block it. During a tough GOP primary reelection bid this summer, Hosemann was loath to even say the words Medicaid expansion.

But Hosemann, who won his primary and is expected to sail to reelection in the general, plans to hold Senate health care hearings before next year’s legislative session and has also said all issues “will be on the table.”

White, of West, is currently serving as speaker pro tempore and is expected to be elected speaker by his House colleagues in January. He said that as he’s traveled the state this summer helping fellow Republicans get reelected, health care questions and questions about Medicaid expansion have been common from voters.

READ MORE: Poll: 92% of Mississippi voters concerned about hospital crisis, 72% favor Medicaid expansion

White said openness to discuss Medicaid expansion or other ideas does not signal a retreat from conservatism in the ruby red Magnolia state.

“We are about to elect 75-80 Republicans to the (122-member) House of Representatives,” White said. “So whatever comes out on health care will have a conservative spin on it. That doesn’t mean Medicaid expansion is off the table, but it might look different, might smell different if it were done … We all agree that we don’t want to see hospitals closed. We’re fixing to have what I hope is a real, real discussion on changes for health care in Mississippi.”

White said he also wants lots of input from the state’s business community, including the Mississippi Economic Council, on health care issues.

“This is supposed to be about the working poor, right?” White said. “These are people that are getting a paycheck. They have employers, and I want to hear what those employers think … The question is also going to become what are Mississippians, taxpayers, going to demand or expect on health care from the state side of things?”

White said: “We are not going to do something or not do something for lack of discussion and consideration of what’s best.”

READ MORE: Few Mississippi lawmakers outright oppose Medicaid expansion

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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.