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Black lawmakers to push for expanded Medicaid program

JACKSON — Black lawmakers in Mississippi say they support an expansion of the Medicaid program as part of the federal health care overhaul.

The lawmakers, speaking at the state Capitol, say they will seek legislation to ratify covering more low-income adults in the 2013 Legislature.

“We, the members of the legislative black caucus see this as a step forward in the care of our constituents,” said state Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, D-Canton.

Black caucus members, all Democrats, would face Republican opposition. Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, all Republicans, oppose broader coverage, saying the state can’t afford it.

“The governor has no intentions of expanding Medicaid,” spokesman Mick Bullock said.

Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling left President Barack Obama’s health care law intact but allows the states to opt out of expanding Medicaid.

The law says states should expand Medicaid to people with income up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, about $30,650 for a family of four. The federal government will pay most of the cost in the early years of the expansion. Mississippi currently allows Medicaid enrollment for people whose income is up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level, about $23,050 for a family of four.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said Mississippi would make a mistake by passing up the economic benefits from taking the federal money to expand health care. He said he’s asked Gunn and Reeves to study the expansion and to look beyond politics.

“It’s irresponsible,” Flaggs said of rejecting expansion. “It leaves $10 billion on the table for health care and still leaves 400,000 Mississippians without affordable health care.”

A frequently cited study by consulting firm Milliman says the Affordable Care Act would add 400,000 people to Mississippi’s Medicaid rolls. The Kaiser Family Foundation gives a lower estimate of how many people could enroll in Medicaid in Mississippi if the state expands coverage under the federal law — about 330,000.

Mississippi had 641,454 people enrolled in Medicaid in May, the most recent figure available. That’s about 22 percent of its 3 million residents.

The U.S. Census Bureau said Mississippi had about 618,000 uninsured residents in 2010, or 21 percent of the population.

The lawmakers could have some support. The Mississippi Hospital Association, for example, has warned that not going ahead with the expansion could leave people with no coverage and hospitals with no way of getting paid for treating them.

Now, the federal government makes what are called disproportionate share payments to hospitals that treat large numbers of uninsured patients. That subsidy is supposed to go away with the health care overhaul, since the measure is supposed to provide coverage to everyone.

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