Miss. Dems back letting poor buy private insurance

Miss. Dems propose using federal money to help low-income people buy private health insurance

Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Democrats in the Mississippi Legislature said Wednesday they've come up with a way to provide health coverage to about 300,000 people without expanding Medicaid.

The state could use federal money to help low-income people buy private health insurance, the Democratic lawmakers said. Arkansas lawmakers approved a similar plan earlier this year and are awaiting federal approval for it.

Mississippi Democrats said their plan has elements to please people from both parties: It would fulfill their wish to reduce the number of uninsured people, while giving Republicans a market-based approach to the coverage.

"We're talking about a compromise here," state Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said during a Capitol news conference attended by two dozen House and Senate Democrats.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said the Democrats' new proposal is nothing but a repackaging of Medicaid expansion, which the governor has long opposed.

"As Gov. Bryant has said before, he remains opposed to expanding Obamacare in Mississippi or adopting expansion-based plans that will leave Mississippi taxpayers shouldering the burden of a massive entitlement program," spokesman Mick Bullock said in a news release.

Under the Democrats' plan, people with incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level would use federal subsidies to buy insurance through a state-operated exchange, or online marketplace. Democrats propose that the state insurance commissioner, Republican Mike Chaney, would operate the exchange.

The federal health care overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010 requires each state to have some sort of health exchange where people could start shopping for coverage by this October. The exchanges would be state-run, federally run or a combination.

Federal officials earlier this year said they wouldn't approve Chaney's proposal for a Mississippi-run exchange because the governor opposes it.

Chaney said he hadn't had a chance to review details of the Democrats' plan.

"It appears to be similar to what the department has worked on in the past, although I do not work on Medicaid issues," Chaney said in a news release. "We stand committed to work with legislators, the leadership and the governor's office to further the wellbeing of the people of Mississippi."

Democrats said their proposal could help end the stalemate over Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the needy.

Because of partisan disputes over expanding Medicaid, Mississippi legislators ended their 2013 session in early April without approving the program's budget or even authorizing it to stay in business beyond the current budget year, which ends June 30.

The federal health law says states have the option of expanding Medicaid coverage to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, starting in January 2014. That's an income of about $15,000 for one person. In Mississippi now, the income cutoff for Medicaid coverage is about $5,500 for one person, though the program still does not cover many able-bodied adults who make less than that.

Under the law, the federal government would pay 100 percent of medical expenses for the newly qualified Medicaid enrollees from 2014 to 2017. The federal share would be reduced to 90 percent by 2020, with each state paying the balance.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the state could lose billions of federal dollars if it doesn't expand Medicaid or take other steps, such as using the money to help lower-income people buy private insurance. Bryan said the governor should be working constantly to find ways to help uninsured Mississippi residents.

"Instead, all he has done is say, 'No,'" Bryan said. "The governor has no plan."

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, said lawmakers should keep Medicaid alive without expanding the program.

"Clearly, President Obama is working with Mississippi Democrats in an attempt to force Obamacare on Mississippians," Reeves said in a news release Wednesday.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus

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