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Mississippi, Burned - How the poorest, sickest state got left behind by Obamacare

Mississippi Burned Sarah Varney POLITICO Magazine


The first year of the Affordable Care Act was, by almost every measure, an unmitigated disaster in Mississippi. In a state stricken by diabetes, heart disease, obesity and the highest mortality rate in the nation, President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law has barely registered, leaving the country’s poorest and most segregated state trapped in a severe and intractable health care crisis.

“There are wide swaths of Mississippi where the Affordable Care Act is not a reality,” Conner Reeves, who led Obamacare enrollment at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, told me when we met in the state capital of Jackson. Of the nearly 300,000 people who could have gained coverage in Mississippi in the first year of enrollment, just 61,494—some 20 percent—did so. When all was said and done, Mississippi would be the only state in the union where the percentage of uninsured residents has gone up, not down.

Why has the law been such a flop in a state that had so much to gain from it? When I traveled across Mississippi this summer, from Delta towns to the Tennessee border to the Piney Woods to the Gulf Coast, what I found was a series of cascading problems: bumbling errors and misinformation; ignorance and disorganization; a haunting racial divide; and, above all, the unyielding ideological imperative of conservative politics. This, I found, was a story about the Tea Party and its influence over a state Republican Party in transition, where a public feud between Governor Phil Bryant and the elected insurance commissioner forced the state to shut down its own insurance marketplace, even as the Obama administration in Washington refused to step into the fray. By the time the federal government offered the required coverage on its balky website, 70 percent of Mississippians confessed they knew almost nothing about it. “We would talk to people who say, ‘I don’t want anything about Obamacare. I want the Affordable Care Act,’” remembered Tineciaa Harris, one of the so-called navigators trained to help Mississippians sign up for health care. “And we’d have to explain to them that it’s the same thing.”

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Mississippi may be the slowest to adopt the Affordable Care Act but by 2020 they will have fully transitioned, just like the rest of the country. 

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