March 28, 2013 10:07:09 AM
JACKSON -- More than 200 health advocates, doctors and others rallied at the Mississippi Capitol on Wednesday, asking legislators to expand Medicaid to the working poor.
Expansion appears unlikely, however, because it's opposed by Gov. Phil Bryant and Republicans who lead the state House and Senate.
The three-month legislative session is scheduled to end April 7, and House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, told reporters Tuesday: "There will be no vote on expansion."
During the rally Wednesday, people waved signs that said "Expand Medicaid Now" on one side and "Speaker Gunn: Mississippi Deserves a Debate and Vote on Medicaid Expansion" on the other.
Sam Cameron, president and CEO of the Mississippi Hospital Association, said hospitals will lose payments they've been receiving for treating the uninsured. Adding more people to Medicaid would help cover that gap, Cameron said.
"It's time to put people over politics," Cameron said to the applause of people who filled a Capitol stairwell and the marble-lined rotunda.
Under the federal health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed in 2010, states have the option of expanding Medicaid to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $15,000 for an individual. Mississippi's current cutoff is about $5,500, and the state's program doesn't cover many able-bodied adults.
More than 640,000 of Mississippi's roughly 3 million residents are already enrolled in Medicaid, and expansion could add as many as 300,000.
Regardless whether they vote on expanding Medicaid, Mississippi lawmakers have to find a way to keep the program in business once the current state budget year ends on June 30. Medicaid is one of several state programs that comes up for review every few years, and lawmakers have to vote to keep it alive. At this point in the session, there are no bills to do so, which means it's likely that Bryant will call lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session sometime before late June.
"With every passing day, it looks more and more like that's what's going to happen," Gunn said.
Dr. Robert Brahan of Hattiesburg, leader of the Mississippi Chapter of the American College of Physicians, said expanding Medicaid would help people receive treatment for a wide range of medical conditions. Mississippi has some of the highest rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
"We need to lift this state from every bad health care statistic that we have, and we can do this," Brahan said.
Kimberly Hughes, Mississippi government relations director with the American Cancer Society's lobbying group, Cancer Action Network, said people covered by Medicaid or other insurance are more likely than the uninsured to receive cancer screenings and other preventative care.
"The uninsured are more likely to be diagnosed later and are less likely to survive the disease," Hughes said.
Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, with one of the highest percentages of uninsured residents. About 530,000 residents younger than 65 are uninsured, according to a study the Urban Institute conducted for the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.