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Mississippi mothers and babies are dying. One man and his 87% male House are blocking help.

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Mississippi mothers and babies are dying. One man and his 87% male House are blocking help.

Note: This editorial was first published in 's weekly legislative newsletter.Subscribe to our free newsletterfor exclusive early access to legislative analyses and up-to-date information about what's happening under the Capitol dome.

Mississippi babies are more likely to die before their first birthday than infants anywhere else in the country. Mississippi has the highest preterm birth rate and the lowest birth weight rate in America, and one of every seven babies born here are preterm. Black babies are twice as likely to die as their white counterparts in Mississippi.

Mothers who give birth in Mississippi are more likely to die here than in 45 other states, with a pregnancy-related mortality rate nearly double the national average. A whopping 86% of pregnancy-related deaths occur postpartum, including 37% after six weeks. Black women are three times likelier than white women to die of a pregnancy-related cause.

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These numbers are made worse because of the state's high rates of poverty and uninsured people. Across Mississippi, about 65% of babies are born to mothers on Medicaid. Because of lag times in getting approved for coverage and a 60-day cutoff of postpartum care coverage, mothers often do not the prenatal and postpartum care they need — care that could prevent major problems.

Mississippi physicians, economists, mothers and children, and now a Republican appointed board of advisers all agree that lawmakers should make a single to save countless lives: extend Medicaid coverage from 60 days post-birth to one year. It would cost the state an estimated $7 million per year, a drop in the bucket as lawmakers sit on a record cash reserve of $3.9 .

But dismal statistics, expert testimony, sobering pleas of affected mothers, and clear life-saving of extension be damned — one man, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, is blocking it.

“I don't see the advantage of doing the postpartum thing,” Gunn told reporters in December, saying he will only do it if the Mississippi Division of Medicaid recommends it. A spokesman for the state's Medicaid department led by Drew Snyder, an appointee of Gov. Tate Reeves, told lawmakers in December the agency would not recommend for or against postpartum coverage.

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“(Medicaid leaders) have not called me and told me that I'm wrong on that,” Gunn said.

Last year, a bill to extend postpartum coverage to 12 months had some serious momentum after a vast majority of senators voted to pass it. Senate Republicans, including the chamber's president, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, called it “a no-brainer.”

But Gunn unabashedly killed it when it got to his chamber. He publicly claimed he had not seen data or been part of discussions showing that the extension would save lives. But that was not true, Mississippi Today reported. Just weeks earlier, five of the state's major medical associations penned a letter to Gunn laying out the relevant data and directly stating that extending the program would save lives.

READ MORE: Doctors asked Speaker Philip Gunn to extend health coverage for moms and babies. Then he blocked it.

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Gunn has also referenced his long-standing opposition to broader Medicaid expansion in defense of his decision to block the postpartum extension. That topic, long contentious in Mississippi and in other Republican-controlled states, is rife with its own distracting narratives, and health experts have implored lawmakers to keep the two separate issues separate. But that hasn't stopped Gunn from playing that political card at every turn.

Looking around the House chamber, it quickly becomes apparent how Gunn could comfortably justify his decision to kill a bill that most directly affects Mississippi women and why there hasn't been an uprising of lawmakers pleading with him to change his mind. In the chamber Gunn leads, just 15 members out of 120 current members (13%) are women. Just three of the 47 House committees of which Gunn appoints leaders are chaired by women.

The Senate's statistics are better, but not by much. Just 10 senators out of 52 total (19%) are women. Hosemann has appointed six women to chair committees out of 44 total Senate committees.

In a state where 51% of the population is made up of women, just 15% of the entire state Legislature is made up of women. And with so few women in leadership positions, it's tough to see a change in policy affecting women happening soon.

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If you're keeping track at home, here's what has to happen to pass a widely supported and affordable plan to save or improve the lives of countless Mississippi mothers and their children: A majority of a group of 105 powerful men has to sign off, a majority of a group of 42 powerful men has to sign off, then a powerful man has to get the go-ahead from another powerful man, who likely has to get the blessing from his boss who is — you guessed it! — another powerful man.

Some are hoping a recommendation made last week by a committee of appointees from Reeves, Hosemann and Gunn himself could spur action on postpartum coverage. The 11-member Mississippi Medical Care Advisory Committee unanimously voted to recommend that the Legislature extend postpartum Medicaid coverage for new mothers from 60 days to 12 months.

Several proponents of the bill regularly note that Gov. Reeves could bypass the Legislature altogether and extend postpartum coverage himself with an executive order. But Reeves, who has long decried expansion of any federal Medicaid program, has given no indication that he supports the policy.

But in the Legislature, there's always a chance. Several bills in both the Senate and the House have already been filed this . Senate leaders, who spent the fall studying how to improve the lives of Mississippi women and children, vow to again pass the bill this session and send it to the House.

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Notably, one of the 15 women in the House — a member of Gunn's own Republican caucus — authored a postpartum extension bill and is publicly backing it.

“As a woman and as a mother, I couldn't let this issue pass without advocating it and really to push it forward,” Rep. Missy McGee, a Hattiesburg Republican, told Mississippi Today last week. She said she supports extending the postpartum coverage to 12 months based on what she's heard from health experts — including pediatricians, neonatologists and emergency medicine from her district — and based on her experiences as a woman and a mother.

But if Gunn, the man who single-handedly controls every piece of legislation that comes through the House, continues to resist the proposal, McGee's perspective may not mean a thing in the end.

Meanwhile, real Mississippi mothers and children across the state are suffering and could profoundly benefit from a little more from their speaker and their government.

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READ MORE: After lawmakers choose not to extend postpartum Medicaid, six Mississippi moms speak out

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi Today

Some state politicians may be moving beyond name-calling in health care

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Riding around curvy roads in northeast Mississippi campaigning for reelection in 2007, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour unveiled to a reporter his plan to create a state exchange where individuals and businesses could shop for insurance at a lower rate.

The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 had a feature strikingly similar to what Barbour proposed, which coincidentally already was being used in Massachusetts. The ACA gave states the option to piggyback off the federal exchange to create their own exchange. The federal subsidies offered through the ACA would be available to individuals insurance off the federal or a state exchange.

Barbour wanted to create a state exchange that would include features from the proposal he offered during his 2007 reelection campaign. State Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney also strongly supported a state exchange, saying his office would have more authority to shape a state exchange to fit the needs of . But the ACA had by then morphed into “Obamacare,” which was meant to be a derisive term, and many Mississippi legislators, and then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, were opposed to being associated with any part of the landmark national health care touted and proposed by then-President Barack Obama.

In the end, there was no state exchange set up in Mississippi, though it could be argued that the national exchange has been a in the state. About 270,000 Mississippians currently have insurance policies purchased off the national exchange.

Yet for 13 years now, most Mississippi politicians have continually demonized “Obamacare” and anything associated with the national law.

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They blocked expansion that would provide health care for primarily the working poor in Mississippi, and they rejected a state-run exchange. And along the way, Medicaid expansion and Obamacare became dirty words in the minds of many Mississippi politicians.

That demonization might be ending. On the same day in the Mississippi House last , members by an overwhelming 98-20 margin voted to expand Medicaid. Soon after that vote, House Ways and Means Chair Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, offered a bill, which passed 112-5, to create a statewide exchange.

Under the bill, Mississippians will go to the state exchange to purchase their insurance policy, but importantly, the federal subsidies still will be available. Lamar is hoping by offering state tax incentives to private insurance companies to join the exchange that there will be more choices for Mississippians shopping for health care coverage. And he is hoping that by providing tax incentives to health care providers who accept patients who have exchange insurance coverage, that more of them will do so.

Hello, Haley Barbour and Mike Chaney from 2012.

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During the debate of the two bills in the House, no one uttered the word Obamacare. And in general, fewer and fewer Mississippi politicians are saying Obamacare in a derisive manner, though many go out of the way not to say the phrase Medicaid expansion when they are talking about — gulp — expanding Medicaid.

One politician, of course, continues to proudly and derisively use the term Obamacare. When arguing against expanding Medicaid, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves recently reposted a social comment from former President Donald Trump proclaiming: “Obamacare sucks!!!”

When explaining the bill to expand Medicaid to fellow House members, Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg, did not about Obamacare. Instead, she talked about the fact that Mississippi has many of the nation's worst health care outcomes.

Mississippi has among the highest rates of infant mortality, diabetes deaths, cardio disease — and the list goes on.

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The bottom line is Mississippians have the shortest life expectancy in the nation.

In terms of action by legislators to address those bad outcomes, she said, “‘No' is not a policy that has helped.”

Before this session is over, Reeves may have to decide whether he wants to continue the demonization of Obamacare or sign into law Medicaid expansion in an effort to address those poor health care outcomes. There is a strong possibility the bill also will pass the Senate and reach his desk, where he must decide whether to sign it or veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

If so, Reeves will not be the first Mississippi governor to face some difficult decisions surrounding Medicaid.

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In 1969, then-Gov. John Bell Williams, who had voted against creating the original Medicaid program when he was in the U.S. House in 1964 and who had railed against it, called a special session to ask legislators to opt into the Medicaid program. Williams said the fact he opposed the program should not keep lawmakers from embracing a federal program that would help Mississippians.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Mississippi Today

Bill to shutter most of Parchman passes first committee hurdle

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After facing initial pushback, a proposal to close most of the at Parchman passed its first hurdle in the Senate Corrections Committee Friday morning.

Senate Bill 2353 by Committee chair Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, proposes shutting down most operations at the state's oldest and most infamous prison by sending people, staff and programs to other facilities.

The vote days after the U.S. Department of Justice released a report slamming unconstitutional conditions at three Mississippi prisons. Parchman was not the focus of the , but Barnett said two years after the DOJ's initial report about Parchman, conditions there have not improved much.

“I know this bill is not the fix-all but we have to start somewhere,” he said. “… Even yesterday was too late and tomorrow will definitely be too late.”

A key point of the phase down plan is for the state to gain operation of the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility, which is located less than 10 miles away in Tutwiler and by CoreCivic.

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Earlier this , committee members asked for more information about how much it would cost for the state to gain operation of the Tutwiler prison and how that compares to the cost to repair Parchman.

On Friday, Barnett said there is not a contract or memorandum of understanding between the Department of Corrections and CoreCivic in writing yet, but the prison prison company gave an estimate of $14 million a year to lease Tallahatchie Correctional, the cost of maintenance and upkeep of the facility.

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-, said problems with violence and gang control are present beyond Parchman and failure to address staffing won't get the prisons under control.

“Moving the inmates seven miles up the road is not going to solve our problem,” she said before the committee approved the bill.

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Barnett agreed, but added that the reason why the prisons are that way is because money hasn't been invested to make sure they are secure.

He noted that during the riots at the end of 2019 and early 2020, about 1,000 inmates were transferred from Parchman to Tallahatchie Correctional, and there were no problems.

A committee substitute version of SB 2353 passed, including a name change for Parchman. In the meeting, Barnett said he consulted with members of the Delta delegation about renaming the prison because of its current and historical negative association.

As of Friday morning, a copy of the committee substitute was not available online.

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The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is to meet Tuesday. Appropriations Chair Briggs Hopson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After reporting on prison conditions in 2019 by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, the U.S. Department of Justice, at the urging of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and others, began an investigation into four Mississippi prisons, starting with Parchman. It concluded in April 2022 that those imprisoned at Parchman were being subjected to violence, inadequate medical care and lack of suicide prevention.

In a 60-page report released this week, the Justice Department found the state is also violating the constitutional rights of those held in the other three prisons: the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, the Correctional Institution and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Mississippi Today

Trump endorses Roger Wicker for Senate reelection 

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Former Republican endorsed U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker's bid for reelection on Thursday, likely giving the incumbent senator a major boost weeks before Mississippi's party primaries. 

“Senator Roger Wicker is a fantastic Senator for the Great State of Mississippi,” Trump wrote on social . “As the Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Roger is working hard to Strengthen our Military, Defend our Country, and our Veterans.”

Wicker, a 72-year-old resident, has represented the Magnolia State in the U.S. Senate since 2007. Before the Senate, he served several terms in the U.S. House and in the Mississippi .

He is currently the top Republican serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over matters involving the U.S. military. If the GOP gains a majority in the Senate this year, Wicker could be the first Mississippian to that committee since former U.S. Sen. John .

“We are proud to have President Trump's support for our campaign and re-election efforts,” Wicker campaign Jake Monssen said in a statement. “ across Mississippi are to take back the Senate and the White House in 2024 and put an end to the radical Biden-Harris agenda.”

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Wicker will compete against state Rep. Dan Eubanks of DeSoto County and retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Ghannon Burton in the Republican primary on March 12. Civil rights attorney Ty Pinkins is the only candidate who qualified in the Democratic primary. 

The winner of the Republican primary will compete against Pinkins on November 5.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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