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In many states, bring up the issue of Medicaid and controversy is sure to follow. For the most part, the wrangling is about new Medicaid, the Obamacare expansion of the health program for the poor and disabled. The state of Mississippi, however, is raising the stakes. Democrats and Republicans there are playing a game of political chicken that could threaten the very existence of Medicaid by the end of the month.
And, as Jeffrey Hess reports, the fight is taking place in a state where roughly one in five people is covered by the program.
JEFFREY HESS, BYLINE: Expanding Medicaid would provide health insurance to roughly 300,000 more low-income Mississippians. Initially, the federal government would pay the entire bill, and after a few years, the state would finance 10 percent. When the U.S. Supreme Court gave states the option to expand last year, Republicans in Mississippi, led by Governor Phil Bryant, adamantly refused.
GOVERNOR PHIL BRYANT: The thing that I do not believe, I do not believe the federal government has the revenue to fully fund Medicaid across the United States of America. I am not going to fall into this trap and leave the taxpayers of the state of Mississippi holding the bill.
HESS: In response, Democrats made Medicaid expansion a legislative priority. Senator Kenny Wayne Jones chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, one of the most vocal pro-expansion groups.
STATE SENATOR KENNY WAYNE: What it boils down to in the end, we're going to make sure that all Mississippians, regardless of race, get the health care they deserve and get the health care that the federal government now said can be afforded to them.
HESS: Democrats are in the minority in Mississippi's House and Senate. And to pressure the Republicans to at least debate expansion, Democrats refused to vote on renewing the entire program. No expansion, no Medicaid at all. They adjourned their regular legislative session in April. Medicaid in Mississippi expires July 1.
The Republican House speaker, Philip Gunn, did not allow a debate because he sees it as a waste of time. He and other Republicans are furious about the Democrats' tactics.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE PHILIP GUNN: I'm dealing with reality. The reality is that expansion bill is not going to pass the House of Representatives. And I've talked to the lieutenant governor. He's not in favor of expansion. So it's just not a realistic position. I think they're playing politics, and we're dealing with reality.
HESS: But Democrats say the reality is about one in five Mississippians is on Medicaid. And Democratic Representative Steve Holland says that is a huge issue for patients and providers.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE STEVE HOLLAND: If Medicaid went away in the state of Mississippi, the only people that would survive medically are the freaking plastic surgeons. Every other Medical function would go to hell in hand basket.
STATE SENATOR TERRY BURTON: This is not the first time that Medicaid has been the political football.
HESS: For all the heated debate, Republican Senator Terry Burton says both his Republican and Democratic colleagues admit Medicaid will most likely be renewed. But sometimes, it takes until the 11th hour.
BURTON: I don't think there's any chance whatsoever that Medicaid in Mississippi will cease to exist. We will come back, and we will reauthorize Medicaid, and we will fund Medicaid before July 1, I believe.
HESS: It is widely expected that Governor Bryant will call lawmakers back within the next week for a special session. Democrats, despite their insistence that Medicaid expansion must happen in Mississippi, say all they want is a debate and an up or down vote, something that has not happened, says Democratic Minority Leader Bobby Moak.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE BOBBY MOAK: Same thing that legislatures all over the United States are debating right now in their chambers. And we have not had an opportunity to debate that. So, yes, we need to come back, and we need to debate that issue.
HESS: There is a chance that lawmakers won't be called back or that they won't agree. In that case, the governor says he will run Medicaid by executive order without any legislative action, but it's unclear if that's legal. For NPR News, I'm Jeffrey Hess in Jackson, Mississippi.
LYDEN: This piece is part of a collaboration with NPR, Mississippi Public Broadcasting and Kaiser Health News.
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