As the Mississippi health care crisis worsens and threatens to imminently shutter hospitals in the Mississippi Delta, the state Department of Health is taking steps to prepare for the impending disaster. The Mississippi State Department of Health, an agency that has been gutted by budget cuts and weakened services over the past decade, was not staffed nor funded to take on the full burden of replacing health care services lost if hospitals close. But State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney recently told lawmakers the department, in anticipation of an increase of health care deserts in the Delta, has begun assessing how it can help.
Larger regional hospitals in Mississippi – where the sickest patients often get their care – are full, and state health officials are begging Mississippians to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu to protect themselves and the health care system. “It’s the inability to transfer (patients) to a higher level of care – our Level 1 and Level 2 hospitals are really being swamped,” State Health Officer Dr. Dan Edney said Thursday. “… We’ve been having a lot of transfers go out of state.” Hospitals in neighboring states are also in similar situations and not able to accept transfers. As of noon on Thursday, some hospitals in Tennessee were not accepting transfers, said Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection at the Mississippi State Department of Health.
Hospital revenue has declined slightly since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but doctors say the major source of economic distress in the healthcare field is rising costs. Staffing, transportation, food and other essential services hospitals must provide have all been affected by inflation or shortages, and experts say those costs may not recede any time soon. “It’s kind of been a domino effect over the past two-and-a-half to three years,” says Dr. John Cross, President of the Mississippi State Medical Association. He says small hospitals across the state are strained. “Medicare has cut some of their reimbursement rates, Mississippi Medicaid has been forced to cut some of their reimbursement rates,” says Dr. Cross. “There’s increased numbers of uncompensated care, that’s uninsured patients that come in. And there’s even increased cost to the private paying patients. And so all these things have kinda all come together.” Many doctors and healthcare advocates have called on the state legislature to aid these hospitals through various avenues, with a major pathway being an expansion to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Dr. Cross says that’s not the only option, and the state should be investigating ways to create sustainable and comprehensive healthcare in rural areas.
House Speaker Philip Gunn this week strongly reiterated his opposition to any effort to allow new mothers to keep Medicaid coverage for up to a year after giving birth. “I don’t see the advantage of doing the postpartum thing,” Gunn, R-Clinton, told reporters on Tuesday. The leader of the 122-member House chamber said he won’t back any plan during the upcoming legislative session that would give additional postpartum Medicaid benefits to people who recently gave birth because leaders of the state Division of Medicaid have not endorsed the idea. But the leaders of the agency responsible for administering state Medicaid policy have publicly told lawmakers their job is simply to execute laws, and they will take a neutral stance on postpartum Medicaid legislation.
The two chambers of the Mississippi Legislature appear headed toward another fight over a proposal to give new mothers increased health coverage under Medicaid. Senate Medicaid Chairman Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, told reporters after a hearing on Thursday that he “absolutely” intends to file a bill during the 2023 legislative session that would give new mothers postpartum Medicaid benefits for up to a year after giving birth. The Thursday committee heard from multiple medical experts about the benefits of increasing postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days — the state’s current policy — to a full year.