A few of Mississippi’s health outcomes are improving, but the state has a long way to go in others, according to State Health Officer Dr. Dan Edney.
Surrounded by white coats, Edney gave an update on the steps of the Capitol rotunda on Thursday about Mississippi’s public health outlook, drawing from personal experience as a health care provider from the Delta.
“I have earned the gray hair on my head practicing medicine in west Mississippi,” Edney said. “I know what regular folks are up against in our communities, trying to have appropriate access to high quality care.”
Edney, flanked by posters with various health data points from the state’s newest health report card, said it’s not all bleak — Mississippi has both made strides and fallen behind in the past year.
“I did want to share with you some good news,” he said. “It’s better than it was, compared to a year ago.”
Human immunodeficiency virus, tuberculosis and obesity rates are trending down, according to the 2023 State Health Report Card, which was unveiled Thursday by the Mississippi State Medical Association and the Mississippi State Health Department. The state’s diabetes ranking has also improved to 48th in the country.
Edney drew particular attention to the lower obesity rates. While Mississippi is still 45th in obesity rates, he said the lower numbers will result in decreases across the board, including in hypertension, diabetes and vascular and maternal health.
“We will see powerful dividends 10 years from now with population health,” he said, regarding the improvements. “We cannot take our foot off the accelerator.”
Though the report card notes that Mississippi has the highest vaccination rate in the nation, that may soon change. Last year, a federal judge ruled that parents in Mississippi can opt out of vaccinating their children for school for religious beliefs. As of September, the state has approved 1,800 religious vaccine exemptions for school children.
The state remains dead last in the nation for infant mortality, which Edney said combined with the state’s abysmal maternal morbidity rates are the “driving force” of his agency’s work. And while there have been some positive results in congenital syphilis, the crisis is ongoing.
The leading causes of death remain heart disease, malignant neoplasms and accidents, and the latter actually trended upward this past year.
Edney said malignancies cost his father his life. He died at 54 from colon cancer, a preventable illness. The state’s health issues all have solutions, Edney said, but the agency can’t do the work alone.
“We’re proving that public health, science and policy works in partnership,” he said. “When our elected leaders are part of that partnership, then it works powerfully. If we choose the right policies for our people, we will see us move off the radar from having the highest rate of preventable death (in the country).”
MSMA president, Dr. John Mitchell, said there’s another effective way to help stem the state’s health crisis.
“One such way would be to expand access to health care to working Mississippians,” Mitchell said.
Medicaid expansion will be a top issue of this legislative session, as it has been for many years. The policy, which has been adopted by most other states, would expand Medicaid eligibility to the working poor in Mississippi. Researchers estimate between 200,000 to 300,000 Mississippians fall into a “coverage gap,” which means they make too much to qualify for Medicaid currently but can’t afford insurance on their own.
In most cases, uninsured Mississippians don’t have access to preventative health care. Many rely on emergency rooms for help, where they cannot be turned away because of lack of insurance. Edney said access to preventative care for all Mississippians is integral to combatting Mississippi’s poor health.
“I will continue to preach that until Mississippians, and that’s everyone, have appropriate access to medical care … we will continue to suffer with these outcomes which none of us are proud of,” Edney said.
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