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Local leaders differ on Medicaid expansion, other issues facing legilsature

NATCHEZ — State officials representing Adams County said they plan to tackle issues preventing rural communities from getting adequate healthcare during this legislative session.

Their approaches to the issue, however, may differ.

“That is an issue that will be heavily debated in Jackson,” said Melanie Sojourner, R-Natchez, District 37 State Senator. “… There is this big divide within the state and even within the healthcare arena about do we expand Medicaid or do we not expand Medicaid. I’ve been very outspoken in my position on that. I do not support expanding Medicaid as it currently is. Every research paper that you look at says that it is a system that is really flawed. It’s failing in many areas and is not providing greater access to physicians for many patients, and it’s coming at a greater cost to many others.”

Both Sojourner and District 97 State Rep. Sam Mims V, R-McComb, who is also the chairman of the public health committee, said they do not support Medicaid expansion while District 94 State Rep. Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, said Medicaid expansion is needed in Natchez and other rural areas.

“We have to do something to bolster our healthcare systems and make our hospitals more viable,” Johnson said. “One of the things we could do is expand Medicaid so we can receive the resources that will pay for the health needs of the population in an area like Natchez, which has more than its share of elderly, a relatively high unemployment rate and also a number of people who work very hard every day in jobs that don’t provide health coverage. We need to do something about that.”

Despite their differences on the topic of healthcare, state officials agree that infrastructure and job creation are other top priorities during the four-month regular session, which began last week and lasts through May 10.

Listening to the needs

These concerns and many others could be discussed during a legislative breakfast that will be hosted Monday, Jan. 27, at the Natchez Grand Hotel on Broadway Street.

The annual gathering sponsored by the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce opens the floor for legislators to answer questions and address concerns from their local constituents. Attendance is free and open to the public and breakfast is $10 payable at the door.

“With every session there are issues that range the full spectrum. We’ve got another 30 days before the deadline to file bills,” Sojourner said. “… I’m trying to meet with as many different constituent groups, see what their specific needs are and see what we can do on the state level to help them address those needs. … I encourage constituents to reach out, shoot me an email and let me know if there is something that is on the books that is not working for you. Is there something that you think Mississippi needs to do that will work better in your local businesses or in your family? Working together is the way we come up with the best solutions.”

Infrastructure

Legislators said they heard from local officials last week and were told that some roads, bridges and other infrastructure were in critical need of repair.

“One of their main concerns they have is infrastructure, which is really the No. 1 priority statewide,” Sojourner said. “I have asked them to provide me with their critical needs, as far as specific roads and specific bridges. We realize this problem wasn’t created overnight and it can’t be fixed overnight, but we have to get a plan in place that is going to immediately help us start chipping away at some of these critical needs and get a priority list so we can figure out how to fund it.”

Johnson said both the Natchez Board of Aldermen and Adams County Board of Supervisors expressed an urgent need to address drainage issues, roads and bridges.

“The supervisors and (aldermen) have done a very good job of identifying the specific needs that directly affect Natchez,” Johnson said. “… There are several infrastructure and drainage needs for which the city has spent all of the money they have available. … They have done a tremendous job of doing a lot with the resources they have but they need help. And the county has a lot of bridge and road issues in areas that are very important to people who farm and to people who travel back and forth to work and school. There are some that have been on the state aid road list for at least a couple of years that should be a priority on the state level. Those could actually be close to getting accomplished.”

Jobs

Mims said creating jobs and workforce training are also top priorities on both the local and state level.

“We need to make sure that we have a workforce that is ready for the jobs that are coming to the area,” Mims said. “… We need to appropriate money for workforce training. … I think being able to attract jobs and making sure our workforce is ready for them are not only high priorities in the Legislature but also a high priority for this new administration.”

Sojourner said she intends to reevaluate state regulations that mandate and put a financial strain on business owners and taxpayers without providing any real benefits.

“There are 117,000 regulations on the books in Mississippi,” she said. “A number of states around the nation have drastically cut the number of state regulations that are on the books. … I’m learning that a lot of these things really aren’t making a positive impact in Mississippi but are coming at a cost to the taxpayers. …

“We should be making it easier for businesses to operate in Mississippi, not harder. So I’m going to be spending a good bit of time looking at those regulations as well. … We need to make sure that we have a workforce that is ready for jobs but also make sure that Mississippi is welcoming for companies to do business here.”

Healthcare

Mims said he and other members on the public health committee were discussing different ways to assist rural hospitals and ensure their survival.

“I have spent a lot of time this summer and fall connecting with the Mississippi Department of Health and most officials and I believe that they have a role in rural hospitals,” Mims said. “We’re looking to put some new language into a general bill that would give them more authority to assist rural hospitals.”

Mims said legislators have also studied the possible avenues for funding the development of rural hospitals through new tax credit and grant programs.”

Mims said he also is looking at ways the state can help improve mental healthcare in regions that are struggling.