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State gives $1M to health overhaul call center


Jeff Amy/The Associated Press



JACKSON -- Gov. Phil Bryant rarely misses a chance to bash the federal healthcare overhaul as an unaffordable intrusion. But Thursday, he announced the state is giving $1 million to a federal contractor that will hire 1,000 Mississippians to help implement it. 


The Mississippi Development Authority is giving that amount as economic development incentive to General Dynamics Corp. to help it build a call center in Hattiesburg to field questions, at least in part, about federal health insurance exchanges. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed to The Associated Press on Thursday that employees would answer questions about subsidized health insurance purchased through the Health Insurance Marketplace. 


Bryant made the announcement in Hattiesburg without mentioning the tie to the health overhaul. Bryant torpedoed an attempt by Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, a fellow Republican, to set up a state-run exchange, saying any entanglement risked giving the federal government a back-door way to force the expansion of Medicaid. Mississippians will still be covered, but under the federal marketplace, part of the reform that opponents often call "Obamacare." 


"No, the state is most certainly not aiding in the implementation of Obamacare," spokesman Mick Bullock wrote in an email. "The employees who will hold the new jobs at this facility will answer questions on a range of programs coordinated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Some questions may come from residents in the multiple states in this country that, like Mississippi, have declined to implement the insurance exchanges mandated by Obamacare." 


Chaney said he welcomed General Dynamics' expansion. 


Health and Human Services officials said the center will be an around-the-clock, seven-days-a-week operation including up to 14 call centers around the country. It's part of a contract worth at least $530 million to Vangent, a unit of General Dynamics. The first year of the contract is supposed to cover both Medicare and health insurance marketplace operations, building on existing infrastructure for Medicare, the federal health program mainly for people aged 65 and over. 


Bryant and state Republican lawmakers are locked in a standoff with Democrats over the other major prong of the health care overhaul, a plan to expand Medicaid to more Mississippians. Mississippi has about 3 million residents. Roughly 640,000 are already enrolled in Medicaid, and lawmakers estimate another 300,000 could become eligible if the state expands the program. 


Because of the fight, lawmakers during the regular session passed neither a bill to reauthorize the state-federal program that provides health coverage to the poor and disabled, nor the bill that would pay for its operations in the year beginning July 1. 


"I'm sure he's looking at it from the job perspective," said Rep Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, a Medicaid expansion proponent who points to a study that it will create thousands of jobs. "That's what we're trying to say is, we need a vote on this from the job perspective." 


It's the second call center in Hattiesburg for General Dynamics, which announced plans in February to hire 250 people by 2014 to answer questions about how to fill out federal college student aid applications. So far, 110 workers have been hired at that operation, said MDA spokeswoman Marlo Dorsey. 


She said the response to company recruitment efforts persuaded General Dynamics that Hattiesburg could support a much larger operation 


"It went so well and they really felt like the workforce would be really good, demographically, for them to have a larger operation," Dorsey said, citing the large number of college students in the city. 


The "large majority" of the 1,000 jobs will be full-time positions, she said, but was unable to offer a pay range. 


The company is renting space in Cloverleaf Center, a redeveloped mall owned by Equity Alliance of Hattiesburg. In addition to the $1 million to help retrofit a 65,000-square-foot former Stein Mart store, the state gave General Dynamics $150,000 to help build out a 17,500-square-foot space for the student aid call center. 


The company could also benefit from state job training subsidies and state and local tax breaks.




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