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Tobacco tax increase, Med School funding, tort reform part of the priority mix for legislators

Healthcare advocacy orgs setting agendas for upcoming session

Mississippi’s healthcare organizations are ready for the 2008 state legislative session that begins January 7. Their priorities and issues haven’t changed much from the last session as they continue to make their voices heard to improve the health of state residents.

The Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) has four key priorities they will be promoting — tobacco tax increase, additional funding for the University of Mississippi Medical School, support for increased funding for the Mississippi State Department of Health and continuation of tort reform.

It, working with a coalition of healthcare organizations, will introduce another bill which will attempt to increase Mississippi’s tax on cigarettes from 18¢ to $1.

“MSMA has long supported any increased tax on tobacco products as a proven deterrent to tobacco use. This year will be no different,” said the group’s president, Dr. Dwalia South, a family physician in Ripley. “Physicians view the tax increase on cigarettes as a simple solution to a complex problem, and all efforts to deter tobacco use will dramatically improve the overall health of Mississippians.”

MSMA hopes to see legislative financial support for the medical school increased to fund the expansion of class size and increase the number of residency slots.

“Mississippi has fewer physicians per capita than other states, and access to medical care is directly tied to the number of physicians,” South said. “A sure way to solve this problem is to produce more doctors who will practice in Mississippi.”

The association has been involved with the State Department of Health since the agency’s founding in 1877, and has provided physician leaders on the staff and board who brought the department national distinction. South said the organization feels the department’s future is bright with recent changes there.

“MSMA will work with the board for state funding to expand and staff public health programs, including the immediate construction of a new MSDH lab, improvement of maternity services and efforts to decrease infant mortality, the state trauma system and other critical medical programs,” she said. “We all have the public’s health at heart and together we can make Mississippi a healthier state.”

She cites impressive figures since the state’s judicial system was changed a few years ago when the medical community made its voices heard at the capitol.

“After a 54% rate increase in 2003, the state’s largest liability insurer for physicians has cut rates and rebated premiums five times in four years,” she said. “Physicians in Mississippi can now get liability coverage at rates equal to or below premium costs in 2003.”

But, she said there’s more. Since 2004, the number of claims against physicians has dropped by 90%. “That spells success for physicians across the state,” she said. “Tort reform works, and Mississippi is a prime example of how comprehensive tort reform can transform a state judicial system.”

Issues from last year,
issues for this year

The Mississippi Hospital Association (MHA) will be pushing several issues carried over from last year — Medicaid funding, certificate of need and nursing shortages. To that agenda it added physician shortages, based on response from members who are having difficulties filling vacancies at their hospitals.

The association’s counsel and vice president for government relations, Cheryn Baker, said the MHA will continue to work on securing full funding for the state’s Medicaid program by means other than a tax or assessment on hospitals.

“The Medicaid program is facing a shortfall in the current fiscal year, which will need to be funded when the Legislature meets,” she said. “It also will need to find some additional funding to prevent a shortfall in the 2009 fiscal year. The Division of Medicaid wants to increase the gross revenue assessment on hospitals for the funding, but we believe the current state law does not authorize it to make such an increase administratively.”

A lawsuit filed last year by 43 hospitals against the division is still in place and will remain so until the funding issue is resolved in the 2008 session.

“Over half of our hospitals are already operating at break even or negative operating margins, so an increase in taxes would have a serious adverse financial impact on them, likely negatively affecting the access to healthcare in their communities,” she said.

The MHA will also promote legislation to speed up the state’s Certificate of Need Program, which was introduced last session. “These changes would make the program more efficient and allow hospitals to more quickly make improvements to their infrastructures and replace outdated equipment,” Baker said.

The hospital group will support initiatives to address the physician and nursing shortages and increased funding for the state’s trauma network.

Nursing programs need funding

The Mississippi Nurses Association was successful during the past two years in securing pay raises for nursing faculty, which has helped the state retain and recruit faculty. With that success under its belt, the group’s executive director, Ricki Garrett, said it will turn its efforts toward funding to increase the number of school nurses in the state’s public schools.

“We lobbied last year to have school nurses housed at the Department of Education and to increase funding for them,” she said. “We feel confident it will pass this year, but we are hearing about shortfalls and are concerned about a tight budget.”

The association will join the fight to increase the tobacco tax and will lobby for the State Board of Nurses’ budget. Other nursing concerns she thinks may be addressed will be increasing clinical space for schools of nursing and acquiring more simulators to use for training students

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

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