Bill Minor, Thursday, April 15, 1999

AUTHOR: MINOR

Bill Minor, Thursday, April 15, 1999

JACKSON – Back in my days of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Legislature, when the session adjourned we reporters mused that once again lawmakers had, as they were wont to say, “taken care of the p’ur widders and orphrans.” On the slim budget lawmakers had to deal with then, they had only barely helped the “p’ur folks,” of which Mississippi had many.

That’s why the just-ended 1999 Legislature must be viewed as monumental, because it put governmental assistance in terms of money and service where it will make lives better and address needs of far more Mississippians than ever before.

At long last, the Legislature had the financial resources to invest in upgrading the state’s underfunded effort in a broad sweep of social and health services. But, to lawmakers’ credit, they used those resources wisely for the improvement of human welfare.

Rarely has this writer said that about the Mississippi Legislature.

Historic is the proper word to describe lawmakers’ creation of a trust fund dedicated to health care into which Mississippi’s $4 billion-plus bonanza tobacco settlement will flow the next 25 years. While other states still wrangle over what to do with their tobacco jackpot, Mississippi is the first to do the smart thing and put it into a health trust.

Mississippi gives credibility to the argument against efforts in Congress to require exactly what we have done.

Establishing the trust fund wasn’t just a feel-good gesture. The money is already being put to good use, $50 million of it in the area of health care.

In the main, between 60,000 and 80,000 children, largely from working-poor families, who now are not under by any public or private health care plan, will be covered.

Lawmakers put up $10.6 million from tobacco money as a match to get the full $56 million in federal funds available to the state in order to fund the Childrens Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and greatly expand the number covered initially last year.

To bring in more children without health care, both legislative branches also agreed to increase the family income eligibility from 133 percent to 200 percent of the poverty level. The CHIP insurance program will be administered under the Department of Finance and Administration much like the state employees and teachers’ insurance plans but with a nine-member advisory committee that includes state Health Officer Ed Thompson.

Out of the tobacco money, $6 million was allotted to fully fund the Trauma Care system which Gov. Kirk Fordice, as well as Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, had advocated after their brushes with death on the highway three years ago. Still other tobacco money was spent on additional health programs including funds for 22 locally operated primary care facilities.

A little-noticed legislative act, considered by health care authorities a major step to provide more health care access to low-income Mississippians allows disabled persons up to 250 percent poverty level to buy into the Medicaid program.

Together, the health care initiatives just enacted by the 1999 session were “the most historic strides in health care I have ever known,” declared Dr. Ed Thompson, the state’s chief health officer.

Closely related to public health legislation was also a breakthrough to expand by 1500 the number of nursing home beds in the state, with the first provision for 250 beds for Alzhiemer’s patients.

According to Dr. Thompson, because of the critical need for new nursing home beds, Mississippi has the highest nursing home occupancy of any state.

In authorizing the new beds, lawmakers included a pre-screening requirement for admission to nursing homes with an option for home-care services.

For the first time since 1986, lawmakers raised benefits under what is now known as the TANF program, formerly AFDC, which takes Mississippi off the nation’s last place in welfare payments for the first time in memory.

The increase raises monthly benefits from $65 to $110 for one child, from $96 to $146 for two and $l20 to $170 for three. Not exactly a quantum leap from hog jowl to filet mignon, but closer to an adequate diet than to starvation. (Even then, 7 percent of the state’s 17,900 recipients won’t get the fill increase because they have some other small source of income.) What most Mississippians don’t realize is that the state’s welfare rolls have shrunk dramatically the past six years from 60,000 to 17,000 due in large part to the national economic boom and greater availability of jobs.

Even then, a 1996 federal law requires all able-bodied recipients to be gainfully employed within five years or be dropped from the rolls. Most within two years must be into job training programs.

“Many people have never had a job, and have little knowledge of what is required,” said Nan Bingham, director of economic assistance for the Department of Human Services. “Our job is to get everyone able to work to job readiness. Certainly the increase in benefits will mean more help for the family.”

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