Jason Coker, president of Together for Hope, gives the call to action during the Better Health Summit event at Duling Hall in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

It felt more like church than a health summit at moments inside Duling Hall on Thursday.

The Better Health Summit, hosted by the poverty-focused nonprofit Together for Hope and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, brought together faith leaders, medical experts and health care advocates in Fondren for one common cause: improving health care in Mississippi by expanding Medicaid. 

Summit attendees, no matter their backgrounds, echoed versions of the same question: Why haven’t political leaders, in a majority-Christian state, seen Medicaid expansion as an issue of morality?

Though panels at the summit ranged from accessing community-based health care to retaining physicians in rural Mississippi, speakers framed the issues around Medicaid expansion, and how far the policy measure would go to improve the livelihoods of working-class Mississippians.

Dr. Daniel Jones, former president of the American Heart Association, former chancellor of the University of Mississippi, and dean and professor emeritus at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine, speaks during the Better Health Summit event at Duling Hall in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Dr. Dan Jones, the former president of the American Heart Association and former chancellor of the University of Mississippi and dean and professor emeritus at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine, spoke freely at the summit, finally without his ties to state institutions, he said. 

He told stories from his stints in Iran, North Korea and South Korea as a medical missionary, and how it compared to the care he was able to provide under Mississippi’s health care system. 

While abroad, when Jones diagnosed people with hypertension and diabetes, he knew they were going to be able to access long-term care and medications, he said. 

In Mississippi, Jones had to tell a patient he’d need to get his leg amputated. The man, a logger, knew he’d had diabetes for three years but was unable to access health care because he couldn’t afford health insurance.

After the amputation, the logger, as a disabled person, finally became eligible for health insurance through Medicaid.

“In our country, you had to lose a leg before he had access to health care,” he said. “When I went home that night after seeing that patient, I was so frustrated … I said, ‘What an insane world we live in. Today, I told a man he was going to lose his leg for a condition that was absolutely 100% preventable. And it was our country, our state, who let him down and allowed that to happen to him.’”

He drew a contrast between those countries — where health care is generally considered a right, not a privilege — and Mississippi, a state where most of its residents are Christians, yet it took an amputation to get someone insured. 

“It’s easy to think living where… people don’t have reasonable access to health care is okay, because it’s just the way it is,” he said. “It’s not.”

Jones echoed his faith and how he sees Medicaid expansion as a spiritual issue.

“I hope when I stand in the booth a few days from now that my first priority will not be what is going to be the economic impact on my family when I cast this vote,” he said. “I hope one of my thoughts is … are we going to do something that Jesus would approve of doing — to provide health care access to the most vulnerable in our community.

“It’s time for action.”

Medicaid expansion has remained a top issue in the upcoming election, perhaps most prevalently featured in the gubernatorial race. 

Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves has remained opposed to the policy change, reiterating his opposition as recently as last month, while Democratic challenger Brandon Presley has vowed repeatedly to expand Medicaid on his first day in office, if elected.

People in the faith community are increasingly calling for Medicaid expansion, including leaders at Reeves’ own church, which is hosting a series of lectures this weekend about how providing access to health care is a Christian value.

Mississippi is one of only 10 states that has not expanded Medicaid.

Research shows that over its first few years of implementation, expansion would bring in billions of dollars to Mississippi. That money is needed — the pandemic weakened an already-frail health care infrastructure, and now nearly half of the state’s rural hospitals are at risk of closure, partially due to money lost caring for uninsured patients. 

Event-goers attend the Better Health Summit event at Duling Hall in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Kimberly Hughes, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network’s government relations director, stressed how critical insurance coverage is in the fight against cancer. Mississippi has one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the nation.

 “Cancer is curable if it’s caught early, and it’s only caught early if it’s screened for, and screening requires appropriate health insurance,” she said.

Hughes described the types of Mississippians who expansion would cover — veterans, working parents and low-wage workers.

“Stop and think about people that you know, people that you love, people that are your neighbors that have no health insurance that could greatly benefit from it,” she said. 

Rev. Jason Coker, a Baptist pastor and the president of Together for Hope, described his wife’s experience as a cancer survivor and wondered how other people could undergo the same thing without knowing they have access to treatment. 

Though emergency rooms by law cannot turn down patients, other medical facilities can, making preventative treatment near-impossible to come by without health insurance. 

“If we as the state of Mississippi are big Christians, super Baptist, if we can’t understand that as a moral issue, our religion is dead and worthless,” he said. 

He described the connection between poverty and poor health outcomes, emphasizing the need for expansion.

According to Coker, 53 of the state’s 82 counties are in “persistent poverty,” and expansion would impact 200,000 to 300,000 Mississippians.

“People getting access to health care … We think that it is a moral obligation on our states to do that,” Coker said. 

As Reeves and other state leaders who oppose expansion have derisively referred to Medicaid expansion as adding more people to “welfare rolls,” Coker warned Mississippians to take heed and reflect on themselves. 

“So much of our politics in this day is bound up in that idea of who deserves state aid. Who deserves our help? You can only ask that question if you are standing in the seat of power,” Coker said. “We have elected officials in this state … who had the power to do something, and decided not to do it because they didn’t think someone else deserved it, or was worthy of it. 

“And make no bones about it: That’s as deeply rooted in white superiority as anything that we know and our lived experience in the state of Mississippi. We call it racism. But it’s more than racism. It is white superiority.”

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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.