Mississippi’s Medicaid in Doubt

Photograph by Amanda McCoy/Biloxi Sun Herald/MCT via Getty Images

Residents seeking medical care wait in line outside of Bethel Free Health Clinic in Biloxi, Mississippi, on March 19, 2013, in order to be one of the dozen or so that will be seen by the volunteer staff. The clinic opened following Hurricane Katrina and continues to provide services for those that are uninsured or underinsured.

Poor and elderly Mississippians on Medicaid could lose it by July, as Democrats and Republicans there play a game of chicken over expanding the insurance program under the federal health care law.

The legislature recessed in April without reauthorizing or funding the state’s Medicaid program.  The current authorization ends June 30. More than 600,000 Mississippians — one in four — is on Medicaid now. If the situation isn’t fixed, Mississippi could become the first state in more than 40 years to have no Medicaid program.

Democrats were responsible for killing the reauthorization and funding. They did it because the legislature’s Republican leadership wouldn’t allow a vote on expanding the program to more people, as allowed under the 2010 Affordable Care Act that President Barack Obama promoted, said Democratic House Leader Bobby Moak.

The authorization required a three-fifths vote, and the funding, which required a simple majority in the House, had a few Republicans who wouldn’t consider it and abstained.

Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn accused Democrats of holding the poor hostage in a battle for Medicaid expansion that Democrats can’t win: “They are playing with the lives of 600,000 Mississippians in order to put on a political show.”

“Go ahead and whip us,” said Moak. “Just give us a vote.”

No one knows what happens next.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said he’ll keep the program going out of his own office, an option Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood says isn’t legal, according to Hood spokeswoman Jan Schaefer.  It would also require funding that the legislature didn’t approve.

Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said the governor “regrets the situation Democrats have created by voting several times to withdraw funding and authorization for Mississippi’s nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities.”

He said the governor would hold a special session to resolve the matter — so that “Mississippi can continue providing services to children, pregnant women and aged, blind and disabled adults” — as soon as Democrats say they’ll vote to do that.

Moak said Republicans are as much or more to blame as Democrats, and that they voted against dozens of Democratic measures that would have continued the Medicaid program and also allowed an expansion vote.

He said Democrats will back down when they get to vote on the wider insurance program, too.

He predicted the standoff will end and no Medicaid beneficiaries will suffer. He said he’s seen similar impasses over the program before. “I’ve seen it happen several times and I haven’t seen granny kicked out of the nursing home yet.”


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