Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley visits with supporters during a forum concerning health at L.T. Ellis Community Center in Laurel, Miss., on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

LAUREL — Days after Republican Gov. Tate Reeves doubled down on his stance against Medicaid expansion, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley promised Jones County voters he’d pass the policy on his first day in office.

The state’s health care crisis has remained one of the major issues of the governor’s race. As hospitals struggle financially and hundreds of thousands in the state don’t have health care coverage, the top gubernatorial candidates are debating the merits of Medicaid expansion, a federal-state program that would provide health care coverage to an estimated 300,000 poor, working Mississippians and help hospitals cover costs.

Presley, who appeared at a legislative forum in Laurel on Wednesday hosted by Rep. Omeria Scott, placed the blame for the state’s health care problems squarely on the governor’s shoulders and repeatedly vowed to expand Medicaid.

“Now there’s one reason Tate Reeves is not for expanding Medicaid,” Presley said. “It’s because a Democratic president passed the Affordable Care Act, and what a silly, small way to be. Let me tell you about me: If Donald Trump had passed the Affordable Care Act and 230,000 people in this state would benefit, I’d be for it in five seconds because it’s not about the politics. It’s about the people.”

Mississippi is one of just 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid, an option under former President Barack Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act. Experts say the state could receive about $1 billion a year for expansion, and it would go a long way to stemming Mississippi’s health care crisis. One report puts nearly a half of rural hospitals at risk of closing — many of them are losing millions caring for people who are uninsured.

Reeves reiterated his opposition to Medicaid expansion at a press conference last week announcing a hospital funding plan, repeatedly disparagingly calling it “welfare” and suggesting the health care crisis would be aided if more people joined the workforce in Mississippi.

But supporters of Medicaid expansion say it’s for people who are already working but don’t have jobs that provide them with private health insurance.

READ MORE: Experts say Gov. Tate Reeves’ plan will help hospitals, but not uninsured Mississippians

Just last week — less than two months before the election — Reeves announced a complex scheme to draw down more federal money for hospitals in lieu of expanding Medicaid. While his plan, which hasn’t been approved by the federal government yet, would put more money in some hospitals’ pockets, it won’t insure more Mississippians. 

That means under Reeves’ plan, uninsured people in Mississippi will largely have to continue to rely on emergency rooms for their medical care and forgo preventative care. 

At the forum on Wednesday, Presley reminded attendees of Reeves’ plan and who it benefits.

“Remember that Tate Reeves has shown us who he is. Don’t forget it,” he said. “With your help on Nov. 7, we’re gonna tell Tate Reeves his party’s over.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley speaks during a forum concerning health at L.T. Ellis Community Center in Laurel, Miss., on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Presley also drew contrasts between his background and Reeves’ at the Wednesday event.

“I understand what it’s like to come home and have your lights and your water cut off,” he said. “Tate Reeves doesn’t understand families like ours exist. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. I have been where working people in Mississippi are. It’s one of the reasons that I support and will take action on day one to expand Medicaid.”

The proclamation garnered shouts and applause from the hundred constituents before him, including Samella Walker. 

Walker, a lifelong resident of Laurel, is a three-time cancer survivor who knows intimately the importance of health insurance. She’s been attending Scott’s forum since its inception decades ago. This year, however, she said the energy was different. 

“Something has got to be done,” Walker said, shaking her head. “The party is over, and it’s time for a change.”

READ MORE: Gov. Reeves announces 11th hour plan for hospital crisis. Opponents pan it as ‘too little, too Tate’

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Devna Bose, a Neshoba County native, covers community health. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied print journalism and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Devna reported on education at Chalkbeat Newark and at the Post and Courier’s Education Lab, and on race and social justice at the Charlotte Observer. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Star-Ledger and the Associated Press, and she has appeared on WNYC to discuss her reporting. Devna has been awarded for her coverage of K-12 education in the Carolinas.