The University of Mississippi Medical Center will not receive $50 million in American Rescue Act Plan funds that the Legislature had directed to go toward construction on patient-care facilities after Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed the appropriation.
UMMC plays an important role in the state’s medical field because it offers services not available elsewhere in the state. It has Mississippi’s only children’s hospital, lone Level 1 trauma center, sole Level 4 neonatal intensive care nursery unit, and all the state’s organ transplant programs.
Explaining his veto in a Facebook post on Tuesday, the governor said he sees “little reason that Mississippi taxpayers should radically increase the commitment to further subsidize the operations of UMMC to the detriment of competitors.”
“UMMC’s teaching center is largely funded by the state. The hospital is not,” he said. “They are responsible for their own operational budget—just like other hospitals. They do receive certain competitive advantages that are not afforded to other hospitals and physician groups around Mississippi, such as waivers of ‘certificate of need’ requirements.
“There is little reason that Mississippi taxpayers should radically increase the commitment to further subsidize the operations of UMMC to the detriment of competitors.”
In his veto message for the funding, which also includes funding for the teaching center, Gov. Reeves explained that he was only vetoing the part of the bill that affected the hospital. He cited a 2020 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling that determined governors can issue line-item vetoes without rejecting an entire bill.
Yesterday, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn told WJTV that he believes the governor’s latest partial vetoes “were improper and not permitted at all under the law,” hinting at the possibility of a new lawsuit. The Legislature could still vote to override the governor’s vetoes in the next legislative session.
UMMC declined a request for comment on the governor’s actions.
UMMC Leader, Reeves Clashed Over COVID
The UMMC chief is no stranger to hard conversations in the coronavirus era. Her willingness to demand a greater level of buy-in from statewide leadership preceded the pandemic’s strongest measures, from the earliest—and only—lockdown, to the statewide mask mandate of late 2020.
UMMC officials have had a contentious relationship with Gov. Reeves at various points since the pandemic began. In November 2020, ahead of the winter COVID-19 surge that killed thousands of Mississippians, UMMC Vice Chancellor Dr. LouAnn Woodward said the governor’s COVID-19 containment strategy was “not working.”
She and other medical leaders in the state sent the governor a letter pleading with him to reinstate a statewide mask mandate to save lives. Reeves responded by criticizing “so-called experts” who “decide that if we just did one more thing, that we could change this.” Reeves refused to implement a statewide mandate, and more than 1,000 Mississippians died in the following month.
Then, as the federal government rushed in to help set up a makeshift ICU in UMMC’s parking garage amid the massive delta variant surge in August 2021, Woodward again criticized the state’s failure to contain COVID-19 and increase vaccination levels.
“We as a state, as a collective, have failed to respond in a unified way to a common threat. We have failed to use the tools that we have to protect ourselves, our families, our children and our state,” she said at the time.
Governor Weighs In On BCBS Dispute
In his statement Tuesday, Reeves said UMMC has “enough money to willingly turn away patients on private insurance, clearly indicating they have no need for the state to underwrite their ambitious building/spending goals.”
On April 1, UMMC’s contract with BlueCross/BlueShield of Mississippi expired amid a contract dispute, leaving thousands of patients with no coverage at the state’s only hospital designated as a Level 1 trauma center.
Despite Gov. Reeves’ claim, though, UMMC is still accepting patients with BCBS insurance by allowing them to pay out-of-pocket at reduced rates. The hospital and the insurer are entering into mediation to settle the dispute.
At a press conference Wednesday, Reeves noted that he approved $55 million to build a new nursing school at UMMC even as he vetoed $50 million for new patient facilities in the adult hospital.
“It is my view that when you look at what we’ve seen over the last several years, the number of beds available in our state has not really been an issue,” Reeves said. “It’s my view that the money would be significantly better served in … increasing training for those in the health-care space, everything from nurses to every other field in the medical world.”
The governor said he does not “ever want to be standing on the side of big insurance companies,” but said he does not think “there are a lot of heroes” on either side in the dispute between UMMC and BCBS.
“I will tell you that there are people across the state who are being forced to change doctors, to look for new doctors, and I believe strongly that when you look at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, their mission is to serve patients. And there are patients that are going either unserved or underserved because of this contract dispute, and what I would say is that, well, I’m not taking sides.
“Quite frankly, if there had been a $50 million appropriation by the Legislature to redo office space at BlueCross’ headquarters, I would have vetoed that, too,” Reeves continued. “The fact is what I am looking for is for people to get in the room and get an agreement and get this done so the health care of so many Mississippians is no longer put in jeopardy.”
Millions Approved For Gulfport Hospital
Gov. Reeves did approve $7 million in funds for Gulfport Memorial Hospital for “to assist Gulfport Memorial Hospital in paying costs associated with the pediatric multi-speciality center located at or near Gulfport Memorial Hospital in collaboration with the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Gulf Coast Community College.”
Mississippi Today first reported on the funds for not-for-profit hospital, which the City of Gulfport and Harrison County jointly own. The governor is friendly with Gulfport Memorial Hospital CEO Kent Nicaud, who held a fundraiser for the Reeves at his home as COVID-19 surged in December 2020.
Campaign-finance reports the Mississippi Free Press examined show that Nicaud has donated $48,500 to Reeves since 2017. He previously served on Reeves’ 2019 state campaign finance committee.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Nick Judin contributed to this report.