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Session adjourns with important issues unresolved

Healthcare wins, losses seen during legislative session

Leading state healthcare organizations report notching a few wins — along with a number of losses — among the initiatives that they were supporting in this year’s legislative session, which adjourned earlier this month.

A $6,000 increase for nursing faculty at universities and community colleges passed and will begin July 1. The increase follows an increase in the same amount last year and is aimed at alleviating the state’s shortage of registered nurses.

Ricki Garrett, executive director of the Mississippi Nurses Association, is very happy about the increase and about a new licensed practical nurses program that passed for high school students. The pilot program will begin this fall at Hinds and Meridian community colleges

“Students can simultaneously receive course and clinical work through community colleges while still in high school,” she said. “It’s a starting point for these students, but we hope they will continue their education and become registered nurses.”

Tobacco tax, Medicaid changes

Cheryn Baker, vice president of government relations for the Mississippi Hospital Association (MHA), says her group also supported the nursing faculty salary increase and will be back at the Legislature’s session next year to work hard for the issues that failed, including an increase in the tobacco tax and changes to Medicaid funding.

“There are no changes to the current Medicaid law, and we had requested clarifying language so that only the legislature could increase the percentage of tax hospitals pay,” she said. “The governor said he would veto it and that language was taken out.”

Baker says the governor and State Medicaid Division have not told MHA what they are going to do, but the hospital organization fears a significant increase may be coming. In defense of its position against an increase, MHA has a lawsuit pending with the governor and Medicaid as defendants.

It is an election year

“With elections coming up this year, there may be some changes in the Legislature,” she added. “The MHA Political Action Committee does support candidates friendly to healthcare issues and will contribute to campaigns. No decisions have been made yet, but we’re getting a lot of interest and requests for support.”

The president of the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), Dr. Eric Lindstrom of Laurel, ticks off issues in this year’s win column, including the revamping of the State Board of Health, physical education in public schools, regulation of swimming pools and spas, increasing the size of classes at the state’s only medical school and a program to put more physicians in rural areas.

The push to increase the tobacco tax and to ban smoking in public places, along with a bill to grant physicians some immunity in lawsuits involving Medicaid cases, did not fare well, but none will be dropped by MSMA.

“We still feel the tobacco tax is important and will push it again down the road. It’s high on our list,” he said. “We want to make it more difficult for a young person to smoke, and the tax is so low in Mississippi they can afford to smoke. However, we should just increase the tobacco tax by itself and not tie it to lowering the grocery tax.”

Lindstrom says his organization would like all members of the State Board of Health to be physicians, but feels the new bill’s allotment of five on the board is a reasonable compromise.

“The bill to put physical education in schools came out really well and will mandate 150 minutes of it per week,” he said. “The bill will also reduce trans fat, carbs and sweet drinks in schools, so that’s good.”

More docs

Educating more physicians for the state is a major concern for MSMA. A bill passed to increase the entering freshman class at the University of Mississippi Medical School from 105 to 110. Lindstrom says his organization would like to see that number increase to 150 to take care of the needs of rural Mississippi and will work toward that end.

The organization is encouraged that the medical school will partner with Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi to train students on the base. The school is putting the program together this year and will begin in 2008. “It will help cement the need for the base to be here,” Lindstrom said.

MSMA worked with the Family Practice Coalition to develop and pass a bill that will allow the state to pay for the administrative costs to set up a program for students to apply for grants to attend medical school.

“Students will partner with physicians in rural areas and return there to practice,” Lindstrom said. “It will take a full year to get it in place, and 15 students per year will be included at $30,000 per year. The program is in the $250-million range. We’re very pleased with it.”

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

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