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Mississippi Dems: We Were ‘Bamboozled’ On Medicaid

With just two days to spare, and with plenty of political drama, Mississippi lawmakers approved a plan late Friday to renew Medicaid for another year.

The joint federal-state program, which provides health insurance to some 700,000 poor Mississippians, was set to expire Sunday night.

Democrats had pushed hard to expand coverage to 300,000 more people, under a provision of the federal health law.

Republicans, including Gov. Phil Bryant, opposed the expansion, saying it would be too expensive, while Democrats countered that the federal government would pick up the tab for the new recipients. The partisan divide over Medicaid expansion led to lawmakers finishing their regular session in April without a plan to keep Medicaid running past the end of this month.

Bryant reacted to the approval of the existing Medicaid program with satisfaction.

“We needed to move, and I felt it had done everything we had accomplished. So I am very proud of it,” he said. “Special sessions are something I will be very frugal with in the future. But this obviously had to be done.”

While the GOP dominates Mississippi’s House and Senate, they needed a super majority – which includes votes from Democrats – to authorize the $400 million in taxes to fund the state’s share of the program. A last-minute legislative maneuver in the Senate left Democrats feeling as if they had no choice but to give up their expansion dreams for a year.

“I think we have been snookered,” said Democratic Rep. Cecil Brown, “This was simply a political stunt by our Senate to force something down our throats and stick a finger in the eye of the governor of the state of Mississippi. I don’t care who the governor is, he doesn’t deserve that.”

Next Year, Same Drill?

While the final vote was overwhelmingly in favor of renewing Medicaid for another year, Democrats are expecting another expansion fight during the next legislative session. House  Minority Leader Bobby Moak warned his colleagues to learn from this experience.

“I have been part of bamboozling the other chamber a lot, and I don’t like getting bamboozled. So I think we need to work a little bit together next time and make sure you are not on the receiving end of the bamboozle stick,” Moak said.

Advocates for Medicaid expansion also sent out a barrage of statements expressing disappointment with the outcome.  The Mississippi Health Advocacy Program called the decision shortsighted and political.

“Given that 59 percent of Mississippians support Medicaid expansion, it is unfortunate that many of our legislators ignored both the will of the people and the needs of those that out them in office,” the statement read.

Republicans were equally adamant.

“We’ve got 700,000 of our people on it right now. To increase to 300,000 more … and the federal government can tell you all they want that they are going to give you free money. It costs somebody. It costs somebody. I just don’t want Mississippi to be a part of the train wreck,” said the Senate’s number two Republican, Terry Brown.

The taxes that support the program are set to expire next year, likely setting up another round of debate and potential showdown over Medicaid and the expansion issue.

This story is part of a collaboration that includes Mississippi Public Broadcasting, NPR and Kaiser Health News.