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Mississippi Capitol sees second day of hundreds rallying for ‘full Medicaid expansion now’

Hundreds of people rallied at the Mississippi Capitol for a second day Wednesday, urging lawmakers to expand Medicaid to provide health coverage for an estimated 200,000 Mississippians.

After faith leaders spoke at the Capitol on Tuesday, Care4Mississippi, a coalition of advocates, held a rally Wednesday. Speakers recounted their struggles with access to affordable health care in Mississippi and chanted for the Legislature to, “Close the coverage gap now,” and for “Full Medicaid expansion now.”

Stephanie Jenkins of McComb, a former social worker, lost her job and health insurance after a car wreck left her with debilitating injuries.

She said she later received some medical treatment from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, but still suffers from chronic pain and other ailments. She said she was told she could not receive Medicaid coverage because she owns too much property.

Jenkins said that years after her accident, “I’m still fighting that battle. I’m still trying to get health insurance. I am still trying to get Medicaid … The state of Mississippi does not realize that it is not about money. It is not about race. It is about people. People are dying because they have no health insurance.”

Dr. Randy Easterling, a Vicksburg family physician and former executive director of the Mississippi Medical Association, spoke in favor of Medicaid expansion. He said the people who would be helped by the expansion primarily work at jobs that do not provide health care and they do not earn enough to purchase private insurance. Many are small business owners.

Easterling said often times the insurance policies available through the federal marketplace exchange have out-of-pocket costs that make them unaffordable for working people if they get sick.

Easterling recounted a story of two of his friends diagnosed with similar cancers. One was uninsured and self-employed, and did not get early diagnosis or treatment. He’s now in hospice and on death’s door. The other friend, with insurance, received an early diagnosis and treatment and is now cancer free.

“This is a matter of life and death. It is certainly more than a political debate,” Easterling told the crowd.

But the issue of expanding Medicaid is currently engulfed in the political process of the Mississippi Legislature. The House has passed a bill to expand Medicaid as is allowed under federal law to cover those earning up to 138% of the federal poverty or about $20,000 annually for an individual. Under the House plan, the federal government would pay 90% of the health care costs and provide the state with almost $700 million more over the first two years as incentive to expand Medicaid as 40 other states have done.

READ MORE: Experts analyze House, Senate Medicaid expansion proposals, offer compromise plan

Under the Senate plan, coverage would be provided to working people earning less than 100% of the federal poverty level and the federal government would pay much less of the costs.

Studies indicate that the Senate plan would cost the state more and cover fewer people. At the rally, people wore yellow T-shirts that read, “close the coverage gap” and “leave no one behind.”

Easterling said that by refusing to expand Medicaid for the last 11 years, “This state has struck a match to $12 billion … and that money was earmarked specifically to increase access to health care.”

He added, “Two days ago most of us wrote a check to the IRS. Now explain to me in simple terms, I am pretty simple, why my (federal) tax money in Mississippi went to increase access to health care in 40 states and not any of it came back to Mississippi.”

Dr. Randy Easterling, a Vicksburg family physician, speaks about Medicaid expansion during a Medicaid expansion rally at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.
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Dr. Randy Easterling, a Vicksburg family physician, speaks about Medicaid expansion during a Medicaid expansion rally at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

“We take federal money right and left,” Easterling said. “We take hundreds of millions of federal dollars for highways, education, the Health Department, law enforcement and natural disasters … But for some reason we push back on additional money for health care. I would submit to you this is a matter of life and death.”

Robin Y. Jackson, with the Mississippi Black Women’s Roudtable, told of dropping out of school to care for a family member. In the process she developed a chronic health problem. She said she was unable to get help, but later got a job with health insurance even though her employer knew she had costly medical maladies. After surgeries costing tens of thousands of dollars, she said she is finally well.

“I was lucky,” she said. Others are not so lucky. She said with Medicaid expansion everyone could receive the treatment she was lucky enough to receive.

She said as shepherds of Mississippians, politicians should strive “to leave no one behind.”

Sonya Williams Branes, a former legislator, a small business owner and state policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, recounted the struggles she faced with her young son who had chronic asthma. As a small business owner at the time, she struggled to provide health care for her family and her employees.

“To ensure my son remained eligible for CHIP, a program that provided him with vital medical care, I was forced into a corner,” Barnes said. “Making more money, expanding my business and hiring more staff – all paths to improving our lives – would disqualify him from the program, pushing essential health care out of reach.

“Our system is broken,” Barnes said. “It punishes ambition and stifles growth.”

Before the Care4Mississippi rally, the Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday morning held a press conference calling for adoption of the House’s more expansive Medicaid coverage plan.

“We remain committed to having full expansion and covering as many working Mississippians as possible,” said House Minority Leader Robert Johnson, D-Natchez. “Our goal is to sustain health care in Mississippi and sustain it in a way that it doesn’t matter where you live or what your income is.”

Credit: Bethany Atkinson

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