A new TV ad says that Mississippians “can count on Tate Reeves” to solve complicated problems like the state’s health crisis.
However, it’s not clear how large of a role the first-term governor who is running for reelection this year has actually played in many of the policy measures proposed over the last year to curb the crisis.
Though hospitals have been forced to close departments and lay off staff to stay open over the past several years, Reeves’ first major health care policy announcement came just a few weeks ago, just 47 days before the November election — after Reeves’ opponent, Democrat Brandon Presley, made the hospital crisis a cornerstone of his 2023 campaign.
During the September press conference, Reeves took credit for a handful of other health care policies passed by the Legislature this session, several of which were touted by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann as part of his plan to help the state’s hospitals.
Up until this month, Reeves had been largely silent about the health care crisis, aside from doubling down on his opposition to Medicaid expansion, the policy measure experts agree would help the most. When Mississippi Today previously asked Reeves about the hospital crisis, he brushed the concerns off, saying the solution was getting more people in the workforce and on private insurance.
Mississippi Today analyzed the accuracy of recent claims made by Reeves and his campaign staff about his role in stemming the state’s health care crisis. Here’s what we found.
Leadership during pandemic
Reeves’ communications director, Hunter Estes, wrote on social media in September that the governor “led the state through COVID.”
Though Reeves has indeed been governor of Mississippi since the pandemic began in January 2020, the state hasn’t fared all that well.
The pandemic pushed already-struggling hospitals to the brink in Mississippi. Already thin hospital budget margins were made thinner during the pandemic, with both staffing shortages and costs of care increasing over a period of several months. One report now puts nearly half of rural hospitals at risk of closure in Mississippi.
At one point during the pandemic, Mississippi led the nation in COVID-19 deaths, and at various other points, the state’s COVID-19 caseload also ranked among the worst in the world. This came after Reeves loosened mask mandates and restrictions on non-essential gatherings — and his decisions often directly countered recommendations by the state’s health leaders.
In two studies from the Council of Foreign Relations and the Commonwealth Fund that judged how well states performed and protected their residents during the pandemic, Mississippi’s COVID-19 performance was at the bottom of the list.
The Council of Foreign Relations analysis, which was largely based on states’ cumulative COVID-19 deaths and infections, ranked Mississippi second to last in health performance during the pandemic.
The Commonwealth Fund analysis, which judged health care access, quality, spending, health outcomes and equity, put Mississippi dead last.
Postpartum Medicaid extension
Reeves’ staffer also gave the governor credit for postpartum Medicaid extension, a policy measure that, until the final hour, Reeves refused to endorse, claiming he needed to see more data that proved its benefits.
Health care experts in Mississippi had long implored state leaders to pass postpartum Medicaid extension, which extended health care coverage for new mothers on Medicaid from 60 days to one year. Mississippi leads the nation in infant mortality, and has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation.
For two years, the Senate tried to pass the legislation, only to be repeatedly thwarted by House leadership. Former House Speaker Phillip Gunn maintained that he wouldn’t support extending postpartum Medicaid coverage until Mississippi Medicaid’s director Drew Snyder, a Reeves appointee, recommended it.
Snyder, who had along with his boss refused to take a stance on the legislation, finally wrote a letter in February encouraging its passage. With that letter in hand, Gunn stepped aside and allowed the bill to move through the legislative process.
Reeves publicly gave his approval soon after, and both chambers passed the bill.
Nurse loan repayment plan and health care worker training
The student loan repayment plan for nurses claimed by Reeves at his press conference was introduced by Hosemann as part of his plan to help hospitals during the Legislative session.
Aside from signing the bills into law after they went through the legislative process, it’s not clear what other involvement Reeves had.
Hosemann announced Senate Bill 2373 at a January press conference. Reeves was not present.
The bill is aimed at incentivizing nurses to stay in Mississippi and pays up to $6,000 per year for up to three years for nurses paying off student loans after graduation.
The most recent available data shows nurse shortage and turnover rates are at their highest levels in years.
Senate Bill 2371, which allocates millions toward hospital residency and fellowship programs aimed at training and increasing the state’s health care workforce, was also introduced at Hosemann’s January press conference.
When asked how involved the Governor was, Reeves’ Deputy Chief of Staff Cory Custer did not answer with any specificity. He said that Reeves “cannot single-handedly pass and sign legislation into law,” though his office is involved throughout the legislative process.
“The lawmakers who passed the bill deserve tremendous credit,” Custer said.
When Mississippi Today asked Reeves’ office for more details about what he’s done to expand health care workers’ training opportunities, aside from signing SB 2371, Custer replied that Mississippi has invested almost $50 million in health care training programs over the last two years through AccelerateMS, a workforce development organization. Custer said Reeves — who appoints the chair of the State Workforce Investment Board, which hires the executive director of AccelerateMS — works closely with both the board and the organization.
“Expanding opportunities to train healthcare professionals has been a key priority for Governor Reeves,” Custer said in an emailed statement. “The state of Mississippi is aggressively implementing a range of initiatives that will strengthen healthcare infrastructure in Mississippi and better support healthcare professionals.”
Hosemann, a fellow Republican, would not say how involved Reeves was in the creation of the bills.
“We have visited dozens of hospitals and met with physicians, nurses, mental health experts, pharmacists, assisted living professionals, Medicaid, healthcare educators, and others in the healthcare field,” he said in a statement to Mississippi Today. “From the knowledge we have gained, we intend to continue to support legislation to secure the future of the delivery of healthcare to our citizens.”
Mississippi Hospital Sustainability Grant program
The Mississippi Hospital Sustainability Grant program, which Reeves claimed as one of the measures he’s taken to improve health care at his September press conference, has been plagued with problems since its inception earlier this year.
Similar to the bills that incentivize health care workers to stay in Mississippi, this was part of Hosemann’s proposed plan at the beginning of the session, and Reeves’ role in its exact creation is, again, unclear.
Shortly after the legislation’s passage, health care leaders realized the money granted in the program, which was meant to quickly send millions to struggling hospitals across the state, would be difficult to access. Instead of using state money, the program’s funds were sourced from federal pandemic relief funds, which most hospitals have already claimed.
As of the end of September, no hospitals have received that money, which was meant to help hospitals survive the year. Issues with the program are still being resolved.
One-time supplemental Medicaid payout
After proposed changes to the Mississippi Hospital Access Program didn’t result in large enough additional payments to hospitals, Medicaid payments were tweaked earlier this year, bringing in a one-time extra payment of $137 million. The state’s Division of Medicaid is housed under the Governor’s office, though Reeves’ direct role in this change isn’t obvious.
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