Working Together Mississippi clergy leader, Fr. Elvin Sunds, reflects upon his faith-driven journey to Mississippi and how it led him to work with others on righteous causes such as our current fight to expand Medicaid for the working poor in Mississippi. Photo by James T. McNeil

We Clergy Agree: Expansion of Medicaid More Urgent Than Ever in Mississippi

In the fall of 1967, as a young Catholic college student from Iowa, I came to Greenwood, Miss. to spend the fall working with Fr. Nathaniel Machesky OFM, who was the pastor of St. Francis Catholic Church in Greenwood. I was drawn to Fr. Nathaniel and his work because of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and his ministry among the poor. 

During that fall, I met several other priests in the Catholic Diocese of Jackson who were also deeply committed to the cause of equal rights and justice. Because of that life-changing experience, I made the decision to complete my undergraduate studies and attend graduate school at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans as a candidate for the priesthood in the Diocese of Jackson.

I was ordained a priest in 1973 and have spent my entire ministry in the state that I fell in love with in 1967. For 19 of my 47 years of ministry, I have been deeply involved in the work of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Jackson, 16 of which I served as director.  I have also served several parishes and administrative positions in the Diocese. 

Pictured here is Bishop Joseph Kopacz (left) of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, Miss., Rev. Dr. Rob Lowry (middle) of Fondren Presbyterian Church and Bishop Brian Seage (right) of the Episcopal Diocese of Miss. speaking at “Catholic Day at the Capitol.” Photo by James T. McNeil

I quickly realized that Catholics are only 2.5% of the general population. As a small minority, we may have little impact by ourselves. However, as I learned from Fr. Nathaniel and others, though Catholics are small in numbers we can have a large impact on the state through collaboration with people of other faiths and beliefs. Together, we can all make this beautiful state a better place. Apart, however, we can do little.


‘Catholic Day at the Capitol’

An example of how this kind of partnership between Catholics and other Mississippians can bring positive change to the state is happening right now. Last year, the Faith in Action Team of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, or FIAT, held an event called “Catholic Day at the Capitol.” We invited others to join us, including leaders from Working Together Jackson and Working Together Mississippi. Working Together Mississippi is an emerging statewide effort composed of a vast array of Christian denominations, Muslims and Jews. We were also joined by leaders from the Mississippi Hospital Association. Together, we began exploring how we could address the problem of access to affordable health care in the state.

Working Together Mississippi along with the Catholic Faith in Action Team has begun a statewide campaign of public education that is building a constituency for health-care access reform.  As a part of this campaign, more than 300 clergy from a wide array of Christian denominations, Jews and Muslims have signed a letter of support calling for the immediate increase of health-care access through use of the Affordable Care Acts Medicaid expansion funds. Last week, this one-page letter with its 13 pages of signatures was hand-delivered to the governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker and every member of the Legislature.

During this last week, the clergy have been engaging their congregants and have launched an email and call blitz to legislative leadership and legislators. Working Together Mississippi is also currently conducting a Civic Academy Campaign where more than 1,000 leaders will be trained on the critical issues of personal, communal and economic health that are at stake in the current health-care debate.

A Windfall of Revenue the State Needs

With the recent enactment of the American Rescue Act, action to increase healthcare access in this state through the expansion of Medicaid has become more urgent. If we expand Medicaid now, over the next two years the State of Mississippi will receive somewhere in the range of $690 million to $890 million in a one-time payment to expand Medicaid. This would be a windfall in revenue that the State can use in any way it wishes. 

If the State takes our hospitals up on their plan to tax themselves and charge a modest monthly premium for the 200,000-plus potential participants in expansion, the State will generate an additional $200 million a year in new revenue. This would mean that if we expand Medicaid now, the State would receive new revenue in the range of $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion.

Many detractors say that the state cannot afford to expand Medicaid. We say the state cannot afford not to expand and expand now. Expansion will provide health-care coverage to the working poor that make up to 138% of the poverty rate and who do not have health-care coverage through their jobs and cannot afford private insurance. This coverage will allow these hard-working Mississippians to receive quality cost-efficient preventative healthcare. 

Pictured is Bishop Ronnie Crudup, Sr. (left) of New Horizon Church International and Rev. Dr. Rob Lowry (right) of Fondren Presbyterian Church speaking at “Catholic Day at the Capitol.” Photo by James T. McNeil

The result is that the annual cost of $660 million in uncompensated care provided by our hospitals will be cut by 40% to 50%. This will help move to financial solvency 22 of our state hospitals that are now on the verge of bankruptcy. For the sake of our hospitals and the communities they serve, we cannot afford to continue to not act.

Expansion would produce 19,000 new jobs. This is more jobs than any recent tax incentive inducement of new manufacturing has produced. However, in this case the federal government is offering us almost $1 billion to invest in our state. It makes no sense to not take these funds and invest in healthcare coverage for our residents, invest in our hospitals and invest in jobs in our communities.

When I first came to Mississippi 54 years ago, I learned from Mississippians that a small group of leaders can band together and change their communities. I am learning again that we, the small group of Catholics of the Faith in Action Team, have engaged hundreds of leaders through Working Together Mississippi, and we are building the constituency that is acting to seize the moment and invest in the health of our people, our healthcare system, our economy and our state.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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