Medical community awaits final outcome of health legislation

By Michael Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The day after landmark health care reform passed the U.S. House of Representatives, health care officials in Northeast Mississippi had more questions than answers.
“The final product is not yet fully defined,” said Gerald Wages, executive vice president for external affairs with North Mississippi Health Services.
The U.S. House passed the Senate bill Sunday, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it today. However, several amendments still have to be developed and passed by the Senate.
“At this point, it is too early to know exactly how this will affect the community, but we are committed to keeping quality service and compassionate care our top priorities,” according to a statement released by Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp.
Under the bill, all Americans will be required to have health insurance or pay a fine in 2014. The measure contains provisions to help lower- and middle-income families buy insurance and has exemptions for the poor.
Organizations that provide charity care are watching closely to see how the legislation will affect their clients.
“There’s still things that aren’t clear. How do you define affordable? How do you define poor?” said Cindy Sparks, executive director of the Antone Tannehill Good Samaritan Free Clinic. “But right now, we won’t make any changes until we know what is going to happen … It’s all about what’s best for our clients.”
Sparks isn’t sure the bill’s provisions will be enough to help her clients – working Lee County residents who make too little to get health insurance. Health insurance that costs $30 or $50 a week may sound affordable, but that may represent a significant part of a client’s grocery or gas budget.
“Right now they’re struggling as it is,” Sparks said.
Dr. Joe Bailey, who founded the Tree of Life/Arbrol de la Vida free clinic in Tupelo, doesn’t expect the legislation to diminish the demand for charity care.
“It’s one thing to mandate health insurance,” said Bailey, who practices gastroenterology in Amory. “It’s another thing for people to be able to afford to go out and buy it.”
Tupelo oncologist Dr. Julian Hill is very concerned the bill puts forces into motion that will undermine private health care insurance, which has covered the gaps left with Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.
“If it is fully implemented, it will end private insurance,” Hill said, because it will be less expensive to pay a fine and go without insurance until a catastrophic illness hits.
Northeast Mississippi may be in better position to weather the changes than many other parts of the country.
This region has a lower rate of uninsured than many other places and a stronger medical community than many other places, especially urban and inner city areas, Wages said.
“We are well-served with a good medical staff throughout north Mississippi,” Wages said, as well as strong employers who offer health insurance. “We’ll face whatever comes and make it work.”

Contact Michaela Gibson Morris at (662) 678-1599 or michaela.morris@djournal.com.