JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi lacks the medical workforce to address a wide range of health problems, from high maternal and infant mortality rates to severe cases of diabetes requiring limb amputation, state top health said officer.
Dr. Daniel Edney, who leads the Mississippi State Department of Health, told lawmakers on Thursday that the state’s health department is short on 150 nurses and low access to health care in the state’s impoverished Delta region is becoming “scary”. The challenges have placed Mississippi at the bottom of national rankings that track the performance of state health care systems.
“We may be at the bottom today, but we don’t have to stay there,” Edney said. “I’m just begging for partners to help us…because we have too many Mississippians dying prematurely. We have too many aging with poor health and we have too many people struggling to access care.”
Edney appeared before lawmakers at a budget hearing to request an additional $14.6 million in state general funds for the year beginning July 1, which would be a 42 percent increase over the general funds for the year current tax. About $9.2 million in new funds would be used to hire 100 more nurses to work in county health departments across the state, according to a health department budget document.
Nurse shortages have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the exodus has added further pressure to Mississippi’s health care system. A spokeswoman for the health department, Liz Sharlot, said 54 per cent of rural hospitals were at risk of having existing services closed or downgraded.
Greenwood Leflore Hospital in the Delta has been teetering on the brink of closure for months, in part because it can’t pay competitive salaries to retain experienced nurses. Its potential closure threatens access to maternal health care just as the state expects more births each year following last year’s US Supreme Court decision that eliminated nationwide statutory protections for abortion.
The nurse shortage hasn’t been limited to Mississippi, but the state has the highest stillbirth rate in the nation, the highest infant mortality rate, the highest preterm birth rate, and is among the worst for maternal mortality. Black women are nearly three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related illnesses than white women in Mississippi, according to the Center for Mississippi Health Policy.
Edney said the agency is shifting its focus from the COVID-19 response to its “core responsibilities.” You outlined three issues that need more attention: maternal mortality, diabetes and the opioid crisis.
Half of diabetics in Mississippi don’t know they have it, and the Delta has one of the highest amputation rates in the country. An increase in diabetes screening would help reverse the trend, Edney said. For maternal care, the department needs more funds to support a new home care program for mothers. But these efforts require more skilled healthcare workers.
“I can’t do that with my current workforce,” Edney said. “I don’t have enough.” He said county departments have borne the brunt of the state’s health care challenges.
“Honestly, I’m shocked to hear you say this,” said Picayune Republican Sen. Angela Hill. “I think part of that is people don’t know where to go for services.”
About 80 percent of the department’s funding is federal, but those dollars are stiffer than state dollars.
“That’s why state funding is valuable to us,” Edney said. “The very modest request we have is not to expand the agency, but to strengthen the safety net.”
Lawmakers are expected to complete a state budget by the end of March.
Michael Goldberg is a corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places reporters on local newsrooms to report on hidden issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.