COVID-19 Makes the Case for Medicaid Expansion in Mississippi

When the Mississippi economy faltered due to the 2008 national recession, and again in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was largely due to circumstances beyond the influence of the average Mississippian. When Americans and Mississippians voluntarily choose to shut down a whole economy, however, we do it with flair.

Mississippi and the rest of the nation are currently making the hard choice to stay at home and not go to entertainment venues or restaurants or make big purchases. They’re also restricting most purchases to food and essentials because they don’t know what their financial situation will be like in the next few months. Essentially, what we are all doing is choosing to deep-six our own economy to isolate ourselves and stop the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.

However, many Americans’ jobs are tied into things such as entertainment venues, restaurants and big purchases, so unemployment is skyrocketing. More than 6.6 million people across the nation applied for unemployment benefits early last month as public health types locked down the economy. This month, that number further exploded, with an additional 6.6 million filing for unemployment by April 9. This gives the U.S. an unemployment rate of 13 percent, which is the worst since the Great Depression. Goldman Sachs officials expect unemployment to hit 15 percent this year.

Those numbers are no better in the state of Mississippi. At the beginning of April, Mississippians were flooding the Mississippi Department of Employment Security’s glitchy website and exploding claims by more than 1,700 percent, from 2,026 claims to 36,465, according to Mississippi Today. By the end of April, we hit 46,500 claims.

Ariel Lewis is a Hattiesburg resident and a recent University of Southern Mississippi graduate with a business degree. Lewis was working two jobs in the restaurant industry when both jobs put her on furlough. Now she’s facing more than $270 in monthly college loan payments, in addition to rent, food and other bills, utterly without income. Lewis is currently relying on savings that she had packed away for a better purpose.

“I was planning on moving to Tennessee, so I was saving up to find somewhere to stay and hopefully find a job (there), but now I’m taking it a day at a time,” Lewis told The Lighthouse. “I have maybe another month or two (of savings), and then things are probably not going to be that great.”

What this means for Lewis’ healthcare—in the middle of a pandemic—will be a tough question to answer in the next few weeks. At the moment, she is one of the lucky ones; the circumstances of her furlough allow her access to her employer’s healthcare, at least for a time. That time has a countdown, however, and there is no promise that her job will reopen within the next 60 days. If her employer shutters its doors for good, or her furlough becomes something more permanent, she says she has no idea if she would be able to afford treatment if she contracts COVID-19.

Mississippi’s recent governors had a chance to smooth things if they had agreed to expand Medicaid coverage under the guidance of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—colloquially known as Obamacare—when it became law in 2010. Mississippi’s last two Republican governors and its majority GOP legislature hated everything about former president Obama, however, and they fought viciously to withhold expanding Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of eligible Mississippians.

Jesse Cross-Call, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says Mississippi residents will soon be suffering for their leaders’ reticence.

“We are likely to see an increase in the uninsurance rate in this county as the unemployment rate increases, but in states that have expanded Medicaid there’s going to be much less of an increase in the uninsurance rate,” Cross-Call told The Lighthouse. “That’s because Medicaid expansion coverage is there in those other states for working adults who are between jobs, or who have just lost a job, and it’s going to be a critical lifeline to folks in those states as they work their way through the recession. For the non-expansion states without Medicaid expansion for folks that lose their job or their employer coverage, they are not going to have anywhere to turn for affordable coverage.”

As unemployment figures mount to the level of calamity, however, Cross-Call says there is a chance that suffering residents in these stingy states may finally drive the argument toward finally expanding.

“I think that hopefully the public will see how critical Medicaid and Medicaid expansion are. Medicaid has always been a critical program in our country, in good times and bad, but it really does tremendous work when we’re in an economic downturn. People need somewhere to turn for comprehensive health coverage when they’ve found themselves without jobs or between jobs,” Cross-Call said. Lewis says she is already onboard with the idea.

“Healthcare should not be tied in with your job,” she said. “Everyone should have healthcare, and not at the rates that they charge. It should be a right. Because everyone gets sick, and you don’t always know why. Right now, with everything crumbling, the system is failing us.”

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