Advocates for lower-income Miss. residents say Medicaid expansion could help up to 300,000



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JACKSON, Mississippi — Groups supporting low-income Mississippi residents said Tuesday that elected officials are ignoring 300,000 people and refusing billions of federal dollars by choosing not to expand Medicaid in one of the poorest states in the nation.

If the state were to extend Medicaid, as allowed under the health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law, many low-wage workers could receive coverage that would enable them to afford doctors' visits, prescriptions and medical supplies, said Roy Mitchell of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program. He said bus drivers, cashiers, day care workers and many others are in jobs that provide modest paychecks but no health insurance coverage.

"These are the people the governor is punishing today," Mitchell said during a news conference at the Jackson Medical Mall, part of an effort to increase pressure on elected officials before the 2015 legislative session begins in January.

Gov. Phil Bryant and other Republican leaders have said repeatedly over the past two years that they don't believe the federal government will fulfill its promises to pay most of the tab for Medicaid expansion in the future, and they don't want Mississippi to get stuck with a health program that eats a disproportionately large share of the state budget.

"It's relatively hard to get on Medicaid, which it should be," Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, a member of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee said during state budget hearings last week.

During the hearings, Medicaid officials requested more than $1 billion for the first time in the program's history. Legislators rarely grant agencies' full requests for money, but even something just short of $1 billion would be a significant chunk of a state budget that's expected to be just over $6 billion for the year that begins July 1.

The federal health law allows states to expand Medicaid to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,000 a year for one person. In Mississippi now, the income cutoff is about $5,500 for one person, and many able-bodied adults are not eligible for Medicaid coverage regardless of how little they earn.

For now, and the next couple of years, the federal government will pay all expenses for people added under Medicaid expansion. After that, the law says the federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost.

Bryant has said that rather than expanding Medicaid, Mississippi should put more money into community health centers that serve low-income patients. Robert Pugh, director of the community health centers' organization, the Mississippi Primary Care Association, endorsed Medicaid expansion during the news conference Tuesday.

"A sick child cannot learn, and a sick adult cannot earn," Pugh said.

About 40 percent of the patients are uninsured, and about 30 percent are on Medicaid or another type of government-funded insurance, the state Children's Health Insurance Program, Pugh said.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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