In closing days of Mississippi governor's race, candidates clash over how to fund health care

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said Thursday that he is working to ease financial problems for struggling hospitals — but the Democratic nominee for governor, Brandon Presley, said Reeves is hurting the state by refusing to expand Medicaid.

In the final days before the Nov. 7 general election, both candidates spoke to hundreds of business people during Hobnob, a social event hosted by Mississippi Economic Council, the state's chamber of commerce.

“Our nation is struggling, particularly in rural areas with health care," Reeves said. “And I want everyone to know that I am committed to addressing the problem.”

Under a proposal Reeves released last month, hospitals would pay higher taxes so the state could draw more federal Medicaid money. It's unclear whether the plan will receive federal approval, or how long that process could take. Reeves said the changes would generate about $689 million, which would be split among hospitals in the state.

Presley said Mississippi is losing about $1 billion a year by not expanding Medicaid to people working jobs that pay modest wages but don't offer health insurance coverage. Expansion is optional under the health care overhaul that then-President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010, and Mississippi is one of 10 states that have not taken the option. The non-expansion states have Republican governors, Republican-controlled Legislatures or both.

“Unlike some national Democrats that are dead wrong, I don’t blame the business community," Presley said of employers that don't offer health coverage. "Small business owners are out there doing their very best to keep their doors open and be able to give jobs to people. And they simply cannot afford to provide health insurance to their workers."

Presley said an additional 230,000 people could receive Medicaid coverage if the program were expanded. Reeves used a higher estimate. And, as he does frequently, Reeves on Thursday referred to Medicaid as “welfare."

“Adding 300,000 able-bodied adults to the welfare rolls is not the right thing to do,” Reeves told reporters after his speech. The governor said he wants to focus on job creation and Democrats “want everybody to have government-run health care.”

In his own remarks to reporters, Presley bristled at Reeves calling Medicaid “welfare.”

“Tate Reeves insults people that roof a house for a living, that sack groceries for a living,” Presley said. "He wouldn’t take those jobs, and those people are out working. Yet, he calls it welfare for them to get health care. That’s how out of touch he is.”

Reeves is seeking a second term as governor after serving two terms as lieutenant governor and two as state treasurer. Presley, who's a second cousin to rock icon Elvis Presley, is finishing his fourth term as a state utility regulator.

Independent candidate Gwendolyn Gray is also on the ballot as a candidate for governor. Gray announced last month that she was leaving the race and endorsing Presley, but she did so after ballots had already been set.

If neither Reeves nor Presley receives a majority of the vote Nov. 7, a runoff would be Nov. 28. Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana are the only states electing governors this year.

Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the U.S., and it does not have its own law to set a minimum wage higher than the federal standard of $7.25 an hour.

Presley said earlier this week that he would like to set a higher state minimum wage. He did not offer a specific figure but said he would work with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Reeves told reporters Thursday that Presley “takes his talking points directly from the Democrat National Committee” on the minimum wage and that, "There aren’t a lot of people in Mississippi that are working for a minimum wage now.”

Pressed on whether the state should set a higher minimum wage, Reeves said: "If the Legislature was to try to enact a law, we would work on it as that occurred.”