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‘The Consequences of Human Suffering’: Mississippi Clergy Organizing for Medicaid Expansion

WTM Healthcare Press Conference
Members of the Mississippi clergy and Working Together Mississippi organizers gathered at New Horizon Church on Ellis Avenue in Jackson, Miss., to unveil a letter to the Mississippi Legislature supporting Medicaid expansion. Photo by James T. McNeil

Armed with a yellow legal pad covered with scrawled notes, Sen. Chris McDaniel took to the Mississippi Senate floor to speak against a proposed amendment to Senate Bill 2799 on Feb. 9, 2021. Known as the “Medicaid Tech Bill,” the bill revisits the public insurance program to make changes, including extending health-care coverage to new mothers from the current 60 days postpartum to a full year. The amendment, however, had a broader scope: a full-blown expansion of Medicaid, intended to provide insurance coverage to the roughly 180,000 Mississippians who earn “too much” to qualify for Medicaid, but are presently uninsured. 

Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Jones County Republican, has been a staunch opponent of expanded public health-care access. McDaniel was one of only four senators who voted against the Medicaid Tech Bill. Photo by Ashton Pittman

After delivering a scathing dialogue against Medicaid expansion, McDaniel issued a callback to the language and imagery of the Civil Rights Movement, saying: “(Medicaid) has been an economic nightmare since 1965. … That’s when the march began.” This prompted Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, to ask the senator from Jones County to yield for a question. 

“Where is your compassion?” Jordan then asked simply.

Although McDaniel was undoubtedly referring to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society Title XIX, which initiated Medicaid and enabled state governments to finance health care for individuals living at or below the poverty line, marches were indeed happening across the country throughout the 1960s. Black Americans were fighting for the right to vote and end segregation, women lobbying for equal treatment and higher pay in the workplace, and migrant workers clamoring for the right to unionize—work that advocates largely consider incomplete today.

Clergy Solidarity 

One common thread connecting these struggles of human rights were the groups who accompanied the oppressed on these marches: the clergy. Donning their clerical collars and pastoral stoles, clergymen and women joined arms with those whom the New Testament writers dubbed “the least of these.” 

More than five decades later, 300 members of the Mississippi clergy invoked that tradition of solidarity and acknowledged the still-unfinished work when they hosted a press conference in conjunction with Working Together Mississippi to unveil a letter expressing their discontent with the Mississippi Legislature’s seven-year inaction regarding Medicaid expansion. 

Chevon Chatman headshot
Chevon Chatman is a lead organizer with Working Together Mississippi who says that “there’s no good reason” for the Legislature’s continued inaction. Photo courtesy Chevon Chatman

The letter also endorses the Mississippi Cares plan, a version of Medicaid reform initiated by the Mississippi Hospital Association that is intended to provide health-care coverage for working-class Mississippians who currently fall into the “gap” between traditional Medicaid coverage and private health-care plans. 

In this year’s legislative session alone, eight bills with the power to expand health-care access to working Mississippians died in committee, and the amendment to Senate Bill 2799 failed, too, voted down along party lines after McDaniel’s warning that passing the amendment would imbalance the state budget.

For Working Together Mississippi organizer Chevon Chatman, arguments for protecting state coffers no longer hold water, as 90% of the funding for Mississippi Cares would come from the federal government, with the Mississippi Hospital Association footing the bill for the remaining 10%. 

‘Nonsensical and Absurd’

“We talk about the consequences of human suffering,” Chatman says. “There’s no good reason not to do this. This would bring in hundreds of million to a billion dollars a year to Mississippi, a poor state. (This letter) certainly highlights that. It’s nonsensical and absurd, even from an economic standpoint.”

Mississippi currently loses hundreds of millions of dollars annually in uncompensated medical care—the highest of any state, as 41% of Mississippians currently have unpaid medical bills. 

T. Richard Roberson says the Mississippi Hospital Association has agreed to pay the 10% of the Mississippi Cares plan that would not be covered by federal funding. The state of Mississippi would not be responsible for any of the costs associated with the plan. Photo by Richard Roberson

T. Richard Roberson, general counsel and vice president for policy and state advocacy for the Mississippi Hospital Association, echoes Chatman’s economic concerns, saying that the State of Mississippi’s failure to expand health care affects the ability of state hospitals to run efficiently. 

“It puts us at a competitive disadvantage with states who have provided this expansion,” Roberson notes, citing neighboring states like Louisiana, which has seen an economic uptick since expanding Medicaid in 2016. “It impacts the hospitals’ ability to upgrade facilities and to attract and retain doctors. We haven’t done the right thing to allow our citizens to be as healthy as citizens in other states, and that’s really the worst thing.”

Chatman says that this lack of commitment to public health is a “moral failing,” which she believes is a leading cause for the rising clergy involvement in the initiative. 

“When one is living out their faith in practically every faith tradition I’m familiar with, there’s a call to ensure the common good in practical ways that are meaningful to folks,” Chatman states. “Health-care access is a basic necessity for health and survival, just like food and water. I don’t see how one thinks about faith without thinking about the world around them.”

Religious Rejection of Single-Payer Health Care

Prior to the advent of “Obamacare” in 2010, this claim was largely true in Christian circles, with 48% of white evangelicals, 55% of Catholics, and 56% of mainline Protestants supporting some form of single-payer, universal healthcare in a 2009 Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life poll. 

Once President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law just one year later, the numbers of support from mainline Protestants and Catholics remained relatively stable. But the evangelicals who comprise what is commonly referred to as the “religious right” suddenly politicized the notion, with supporters of expanded, government-funded health care dropping to just 18%.

The religious right’s post-Obama rejection of universal health care disproportionately affects Mississippi, which is widely regarded as the most religious state with 77% of its citizens claiming allegiance to an organized religion and 41% of Mississippians identifying as evangelicals. The Legislature’s evangelical membership is even higher, with nearly half the legislative body self-describing as “evangelical.”

For Rev. Rob Lowry, pastor at Fondren Presbyterian Church and a signer of the letter, these differences are not insurmountable. “Our religious communities get divided along the same line political communities do, but we have a greater duty,” Lowry says. “There’s room for people of every faith to come together to say people’s dignity and people’s health matters to us, and we’re going to make sure they have that.” 

Ecumenism Necessary to Accomplish Goals

If evangelicals, Catholics and mainline Protestants can find that long-absent sense of ecumenism and support the Mississippi Cares initiative, supporters say it has the potential to pay dividends for the state. “I’ve heard it said that we simply cannot afford it or that it’s too expensive for a state like Mississippi to implement,” Lowry, who has been a long-time supporter of the legislation, says. “In any other circumstance, that might be a valid objection. In Mississippi Cares, the state increases its revenue, and the state coffers are unaffected.”

Current projections estimate that Mississippi would see an $18-billion increase in gross product in the first 10 years after implementing Mississippi Cares, and organizers and clergy people with Working Together Mississippi are convinced that the future passage of the Mississippi Cares Act is contingent upon the support of religious groups. The coalition currently has plans to train 500 laypeople at “civic academies” across the state in order to enable them to encourage their fellow congregants to support the legislation directly.

“We can’t wait for our leaders to do it on their own volition,” Chatman says. “We want to put the public at large on notice about this so that they can get involved in it.”

“Notable supporters of the movement thus far include the bishops of the Jackson and Biloxi dioceses of the Catholic Church, the bishop of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church and the bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Mississippi, who together represent nearly one-fifth of all religious people in Mississippi. Imam Ameen Abdur-Rashied, who leads Masjid Muhammad in Jackson and whose congregation plays home to many immigrants, also signed the letter of support. Four Jewish leaders have added their names to the list, too, with three rabbis leading synagogues in Jackson and a fourth presiding over a congregation in the Mississippi Delta.”

Rev. Rob Lowry, pastor and head of staff at Fondren Presbyterian, believes that religious communities in Mississippi should put the biblical exhortation to “love thy neighbor” into practice. Photo by Laura Beth Lott, Cotton Row Creative

“We’ve got to support agencies that help connect people to the resources that are available,” Lowry posits, citing Good Samaritan and Stewpot as worthy causes in his own Jackson community. “We run a food pantry, and when our neighbors are in need of food or clean water, we help them out.”

Lowry does, however, argue that such resources are not enough and that the Mississippi Legislature will eventually have to act. “In the end, I trust our leaders who say they’re devout members of the Christian community,” he concludes. “But we have a responsibility to our neighbors before we have a responsibility to a political party. I trust our leaders to come around and to show our value for human life and human dignity.”

Clergy will hand-deliver their letter today, March 10, to Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov.  Delbert Hosemann, Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn and all members of the Mississippi Legislature. Any faith leaders interested in signing the letter may contact Working Together Mississippi using this form, and laypeople interested in attending a civic academy should contact an involved clergyperson or reach out to Working Together Mississippi directly. 

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