MERIDIAN — “Half of Mississippi’s rural hospitals at risk of closing, report says,” read the startling headline in Mississippi Today.

“Thirty-one of Mississippi’s 64 rural hospitals, or 48 percent, are at ‘high financial risk,’ according to a national report of rural hospitals from independent consulting firm Navigant,” read the article.

Perhaps even more startling was this from an article in News Mississippi: “Four hospitals have closed in the past five years and five more are threatening closure. Expanding Medicaid would ensure that Mississippians continue to have access to local trauma centers and proper health care, however, (Senate Medicaid Committee Chairman Brice) Wiggins said the hospitals need to work it out on their own.”

“Work it out on their own.” Hmmm.

Public and private hospitals in Mississippi, excluding state and federally owned hospitals, employ more than 50,000 people with average salaries of $46,700. Apparently, sustaining these high-paying jobs in rural communities is not a state priority.

On the other hand, the state was willing to pony up $600 million in incentives to attract the Continental AG tire plant with 2,500 lower-paying jobs.

Hmmm. At that rate, 50,000 high-paying hospital jobs should be worth $12 billion in state support.

The Continental plant will be a huge economic engine for the Hinds County urban area. Hospitals, on the other hand, are huge economic engines in rural communities, providing millions in economic impact over and above the salaries they pay.

Here’s the real clinker in this story.

Over the past several years, hospital representatives have met with Wiggins and other state and legislative leaders to try and come up with a solution to keep rural hospitals viable AND provide better and more affordable health care to Mississippi’s working poor.

One option discussed would, indeed, let hospitals work it out on their own. It would change Medicaid similar to what Vice President Mike Pence did while governor of Indiana plus revamp the Medicaid managed-care model. In this option, hospitals, not state taxpayers, would pick up the tab. (Hospitals already pay the state more than $280 million in annual assessments to support Medicaid.)

No option discussed, however, was acceptable to Mississippi Senate leadership and, apparently, remains that way with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in his campaign for governor. “I’m opposed to Obamacare expansion in Mississippi,” he said, apparently seeing no difference between Pence’s conservative “Healthy Indiana” plan and generic Obamacare.

Two opponents for governor, however, seem to think Republicans need a conservative “Healthy Mississippi” solution to the growing crises for rural hospitals and uninsured workers.

State Rep. Robert Foster of Hernando told the Clarion Ledger he will look for “an innovative way of bringing health care that is affordable to the working class Mississippians that are left out right now.”

Retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. told The Meridian Star, “I think we have a health crisis, and we have to address it. Our hospitals have got to be viable and strong, and citizens have got to have access.”

Well, apparently there is a “Healthy Mississippi” way to work it out, but not with current leadership. That makes the issues of hospital closings and health care for the working poor significant campaign issues.

Bill Crawford is a Republican former state lawmaker from Meridian.

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