The state’s troubled hospital grant program has doled out money to a handful of hospitals, but it’ll take a new law to get hospitals the full amount of money they were promised a year ago.
As Mississippi’s hospitals financially foundered, the state Legislature established the Mississippi Hospital Sustainability Grant program last session to give hospitals a much-needed boost. But the program has been deeply flawed since its creation, starting with the source of its funds, which has made it difficult for many facilities to get the money they were originally allocated.
Instead of using state money for the grants, lawmakers designated federal COVID-19 relief money. Sen. Kevin Blackwell, the principal author of the bill that established the program, told Mississippi Today that the bill’s writers “didn’t really realize” the problems that would cause. Federal money is highly regulated and can’t be disbursed as easily.
“The hospitals took a beating during COVID, and we were just trying to do the right thing to help them out a little bit,” Blackwell said.
Though the program was initially pitched as one-time grants, because of the federal funding, hospitals must show pandemic-related financial loss, making it a reimbursement program.
The program’s shortfalls have led to confusion and frustration among health officials and lawmakers. State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney previously told legislators that only a small fraction of the state’s hospitals would be eligible for the money, before changing his tune days later and saying on a radio show that most hospitals would be eligible to receive some money thanks to a “work around.” Most recently, the agency’s stance is that all hospitals can apply for the money, as long as they show COVID-19 losses.
Kris Adcock, senior deputy at the Mississippi State Health Department, said at last week’s state board of health meeting that a total of 103 hospitals, the vast majority in the state, have applied for money through the grant program, and 93 of those facilities would likely be eligible. Hospitals had until the end of the year to apply.
Seventeen have received funds so far, about a million dollars each, according to Edney.
Some of the hospitals that have received money from the program include Bolivar Medical Center, Greenwood Leflore Hospital, Baptist Memorial Hospital of Booneville, Diamond Grove Center and several Merit Health locations — River Oaks, Woman’s Hospital, Central and Biloxi. Health department officials did not provide the rest of the facilities’ names by press time.
Edney explained in an interview with Mississippi Today that 10 hospitals that are likely ineligible for money were in such bad shape that the pandemic temporarily improved their finances, disqualifying them from the COVID-19 relief funds.
But the Legislature will use state tax dollars this year to give those 10 hospitals the funding they were supposed to receive through a bill Blackwell is working on this session. The bill will also send money to hospitals that got less than they were originally promised and hospitals that did not apply for the money because they assumed they were ineligible.
Adcock estimated that the agency will spend $65.5 million on the program in total. In the original legislation, $103 million was allocated to the state’s hospitals, with $700,000 set aside for the health department for administering the program.
As for the program’s expected remaining $37.5 million, Adcock said the agency will need direction from the Legislature about how to spend it.
“(The program) was designed to spend out after the first round,” Edney said. “The way the statute was written, we can’t go to the second round … So (the Legislature) is deciding what they want to do. “
However, Leah Smith, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s spokeswoman, said remaining COVID-19 relief funds can be repurposed for other uses.
Hosemann touted the program as part of a package of bills he intended to help stem the state’s ongoing health care crisis, and has since vowed to make sure hospitals get the amount they were promised.
Smith said that the lieutenant governor’s office will be working closely with Blackwell and the health department on the bill related to the grant program.
“Whatever (the hospitals) were dealt, that’s what they’re going to get,” Blackwell said.
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