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Healthcare associations outline legislative agendas for 2007

JACKSON — When the 2007 session of the Mississippi Legislature convenes next month, two of the state’s leading healthcare organizations will be ready for them. The Mississippi Hospital Association (MHA) and the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) have issues of concern and plan to work vigorously with legislators to implement new state laws.

Eric E. Lindstrom, M.D., is president of MSMA and outlines seven major issues of varying importance to the organization.

Concern about increasing the tax on tobacco is high on the list. “We have long supported it because a higher tax on tobacco products is a proven deterrent to smoking,” he said. “We will work with a coalition of other organizations to get it passed.”

The association has also weighed in on some cities’ fight to pass smoke-free ordinances because they feel it’s important for the state’s health.

The storm swirling around the Mississippi State Board of Health is also a concern for MSMA. “Over the last few years, we’ve lost a number of physicians on the board,” Lindstrom said. “When the board was first formed, it was all physicians. As that changed, physicians lost out and now do not have as much representation. We’re convinced the board needs more of that representation.”

Other important concerns of the MSMA include physical education in schools; access to rural healthcare; regulation of swimming pools and spas to ensure regular chlorination and clean water; some immunity for treating Medicaid patients; banning smoking in public places; and increasing the medical school class size at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine.

“We want to see more physical education in schools and are anxious to see it enforced,” Lindstrom said. “Also, we were glad to see sugar snacks taken out of school vending machines and will be watching to see how that works out.”

To offer better access to rural healthcare, the MSMA is trying to collaborate with the medical school to oversee medical scholarships. “We’ve got some real problems with that,” the president said. “We keep a number of graduates in the state but not in rural areas. Most students graduate with a debt in the $100,000 range and that makes it more lucrative to practice in larger places.”

Working with three legislators who are also physicians, a bill to give physicians treating Medicaid patients some immunity from lawsuits was introduced in 2006 and will be introduced again in 2007.

“We want to offer them some protection, especially for ob/gyn specialists, and make sure these cases are judged within the state’s tort law,” Lindstrom said. “This would give the physicians some leeway.”

A ban on smoking in public places is especially being promoted where young people congregate, places such as basketball gymnasiums. “We would love to see that happen and will continue to work to limit secondhand smoke exposure everywhere,” he said.

Lindstrom, an ophthalmologist who’s practiced in Laurel for 30 years, says increasing the medical school’s class size this year to 110 students would be a big boost to better healthcare in the state, especially in rural areas.

“We’re looking at going for a class size of 150 in the coming years,” he said. “Those increases can be taken care of with the existing facilities. Other Southern states are graduating classes of 200. We need more graduates to help with coverage in rural areas.”

Cheryn Baker, MHA’s vice president for government relations, says the organization’s biggest issue for the 2007 legislative session is Medicaid funding.

“Though Gov. Barbour delayed taxing hospitals to let the Legislature decide the issue, the funding shortfall that developed still has to come from somewhere,” she said. “Aside from alternatives to provide taxes to make the program solvent, we are also gathering information for legislators so they can see how other states fund the program, what other funding alternatives there are, and what other states in similar situations have done to fix the funding shortfall problem.”

The MHA has also joined Communities for a Clean Bill of Health to promote an increased tobacco tax as an alternative for the Medicaid funding shortfall.

“We are exploring other alternatives should a tobacco tax initiative fail,” Baker said. “Aside from working on this year’s funding shortfall, we are looking at long-range strategies to ensure the viability of the state’s Medicaid program. The program cannot continue to be balanced on the backs of providers. We realize we have to present other alternatives to state legislators and we will be ready to do that by the start of the session.”

Baker says the nursing faculty shortage is the MHA’s second biggest issue for the 2007 session. “We are supporting legislation to increase nursing faculty salaries by $6,000, and we are also looking for ways to create financial incentives for delayed retirement for those faculty members at retirement age.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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