JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi's Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said in a private conversation that expanding Medicaid to people working low-wage jobs would be in the best interest of the state, but that he refuses to support the policy for political reasons, a former chancellor of the University of Mississippi said Thursday.
Dr. Dan Jones is a physician who led the University of Mississippi Medical Center before serving as chancellor of the university from 2009 to 2015. During a news conference organized by Democratic state lawmakers on Thursday, Jones said that Reeves acknowledged in a private conversation with him in 2013 or 2014 that expanding Medicaid would benefit Mississippi's economy, and provide health care to more residents of a state bedeviled by poor health outcomes.
Jones said he was trying to persuade Reeves, who was the lieutenant governor at the time, to take advantage of a 2010 health care law signed by President Barack Obama that allowed for Medicaid expansion, with the federal government covering most of the cost. Jones said the conversation took place in Jones' office at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
"The governor after a few moments put his hands up and said, 'Chancellor, I recognize that it would be good for Mississippians, that it would be good for our economy, good for health care to expand Medicaid,'" Jones recounted. "I had a big smile on my face, and I said 'I'm glad to hear that and I'm glad to hear you'll support Medicaid expansion.' His response was, 'Oh no, I'm not going to support it because it's not in my personal political interest.'"
Reeves wrote on Twitter Thursday that Jones' remarks were "obviously a lie."
"I'd bet I hadn't talked to this dude since well before he was fired by Ole Miss, and I never would have said this," Reeves wrote. "Do you believe he has held this 'juicy scoop' for 8 years? Through 2019? And remembered it just before a presser with Democrats in 2023?"
Jones returned to the University of Mississippi Medical Center after the state college board chose not to renew his contract as chancellor. He retired two years ago, and said that since then, he has more freedom to speak publicly.
Reeves is seeking a second term as governor this year. He has frequently said that he does not want to add people to a government health program. A Democrat running for governor, Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, is making Medicaid expansion a central promise in his own campaign.
During his State of the State speech Monday, Reeves said Mississippi should shore up health care resources by cutting bureaucracy, increasing medical residency programs and relying on technology.
Mississippi is among 11 states that have not taken the option from the federal government to expand Medicaid coverage to people working low-wage jobs without health insurance. At least 15 bills that would have done so expired under a Tuesday deadline without a legislative debate or a vote in the Republican-controlled legislature.
Mississippi has the nation's highest fetal mortality, infant mortality and pre-term birth rates. At a Jan. 13 legislative hearing, Dr. Daniel Edney, the state health officer, said Mississippi doesn't have the medical workforce to address a wide range of poor health outcomes. Some hospitals are on the brink of permanent closure due to staff shortages and population decline in poor areas.
At the state Capitol on Thursday, Jones said he is sharing details about his conversation with Reeves now because he has never before seen Mississippi's health care system under the strain it is now, even with a $4 billion surplus in the state budget.
"Shame on us for allowing the citizens of Mississippi to have health care problems and not have access to health care solutions," Jones said. "Shame on us in a state with billions of dollars in its coffers to not act on this to make health care available to all of our citizens. It is immoral."
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.