Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, left, answers questions during a press conference after a special session at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Wednesday, November 2, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Eight of 80 Mississippi hospitals that applied for money through the state’s new hospital grant program have finally received those funds after months of waiting. 

However, Mississippi State Health Department officials say the program’s kinks are still being ironed out. 

Gov. Tate Reeves signed the Mississippi Hospital Sustainability Grant program, which allotted state hospitals a cumulative one-time payment of $103 million, into law in April. The legislation was part of a package of bills introduced by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann intended to help stem the state’s ongoing health care crisis. 

Nearly half of the state’s rural hospitals are at risk of closure, according to one report, and urban hospitals have been cutting services and struggling with recouping losses sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But the grant program has been riddled with trouble since its creation. 

For months, a legislative error prevented the money from being disbursed to struggling hospitals. During the bill’s creation, lawmakers chose to use federal pandemic relief money instead of state funds — it’s not clear if they knew the challenges that the source of funds could present. Federal money is highly regulated, which has complicated how the grant money can be disbursed. 

While the program was originally pitched as one-time grants, in actuality, hospitals must show financial loss due to the pandemic. One hospital administrator previously told Mississippi Today that made it more of a “reimbursement” program. 

Daniel Edney, M.D., is the State Health Officer. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney has given changing, and sometimes conflicting, statements about the grant program in public meetings and interviews, which agency officials have chalked up to the “fluid” nature of the situation. Edney declined to make himself available for this story, despite multiple interview requests over the course of five weeks. 

He told legislators at a tense Joint Legislative Budget Committee meeting in late September that two-thirds of hospitals had applied for the program, but only half of those hospitals were actually eligible for the money. Lawmakers — Hosemann and Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, in particular — appeared frustrated at the health agency’s handling of the program. 

The state health department is being paid $700,000 to dole out the funds. 

Lamar at the meeting asked for a comprehensive list detailing hospitals’ eligibility for the grant money. Edney first said he had that list back at the office, but minutes later said he would get agency officials to draft a document explaining the program and send that information to committee members. 

Lamar nor Hosemann ever received that list or document, they said. A records request by Mississippi Today did not yield them, either. 

A few days after that meeting, Edney said in an interview with radio personality Paul Gallo that through a new workaround, he expected that 85% of hospitals would actually be eligible for the money. When Mississippi Today followed up with Edney to explain the sudden change, he offered no specifics.

“We’re all still working (on) the problem,” he said. 

Edney was adamant at the September Joint Legislative Budget Committee meeting that the agency needed legislative direction before they could disburse funds, and that he needed lawmakers to decide if they wanted to send out the money or wait until they fixed the program during the upcoming legislative session. 

Even though legislators say they haven’t received any new information, eight hospitals quietly received some money in the past few weeks.

As of Nov. 13, the only hospitals that have received money are Bolivar Medical Center, Greenwood Leflore Hospital, Baptist Memorial Hospital of Booneville, Diamond Grove Center and several Merit Health locations — River Oaks, Woman’s Hospital, Central and Biloxi. 

Each of those facilities got $1 million, except for Merit Health Woman’s Hospital and Diamond Grove, which received $500,000 each. 

Those amounts are generally less than what was initially allotted to those facilities at the time of the program’s passage, except for Greenwood, which received slightly more, and Diamond Grove, which was originally expected to receive nothing.

The Greenwood hospital has been facing steep financial difficulties for months. Interim CEO Gary Marchand said the money would be enough to cover hospital payroll for two weeks.

“Every little bit will help us continue to operate in our current situation,” he said. “Although this funding is just one piece of our short-term sustainability, we are appreciative of Dr. Edney, the Mississippi State Health Department and the Legislature.”

The news that money had been disbursed came as a surprise to Lamar when reached by phone on Tuesday. 

Mississippi House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, speaks in the Mississippi House chamber in Jackson, Miss., Nov. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

“Hopefully, this means we’re making some progress,” Lamar said. “That was certainly the intent — to get financial assistance to as many hospitals that will qualify as quickly as possible. It’s taken this long, but at the end of the day, if it gets where it’s supposed to go, that’s what we want to see happen.”

An official document provided by the agency showed that an additional 72 hospitals have applied for the money as of Nov. 14, which is about 70% of the state’s total hospitals. One of those facilities is Lamar’s local hospital, Highland Hills Medical Center in Senatobia. 

He said the facility got a “notice of approval” from the health department this week regarding the grant money but still needed to provide more information before being determined eligible. 

Now, instead of trying to estimate how many hospitals are generally eligible, health department officials would only say all hospitals can apply for the money — they just have to prove COVID losses. 

However, the entire $103 million will likely not be given out — that amount serves as a cap for the maximum amount of money that can be distributed. 

Hospitals can apply for the money until the end of the year, and if hospitals don’t get enough help, Hosemann said he’s committed to making changes to the program. 

“We have asked the Department of Health to provide us with information by early December detailing how much grant money has been distributed to date and how much is expected to be distributed by the beginning of session,” he said. “Once we have that information, we will start working on revisions to the program to ensure hospitals receive what we initially intended them to receive.”

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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.