Highlight on Mississippi: Budget crisis has health pundits grumbling

Mississippi’s fiscal year (FY) 2017 state budget takes effect on July 1, 2016, and health care stakeholders are decrying budget decreases and the potential misuse of funds. Advocates and lawmakers are concerned about overall financial cuts, mental health experts want more program funding, and a health care trust fund is about to hit a zero balance in the state that ranks 48th in state public health funding compared to the rest of the United States and the District of Columbia.

Department of Health

The Mississippi State Department of Health is subject to budget cuts in FY 2017. Although a range of cuts have been mentioned, various news outlets report cuts amounting to $4 million.  They also indicate that the Department is suffering as a result, having been forced to lay off employees, leave other positions unfilled, and close clinics. Health Department funds are allocated to Health Services, including maternal and child health, oral health, and preventive health; Health Protection, including environmental health an licensure; Communicable Disease; Tobacco Control; Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response; and Administration and Support Services. Charles “Buddy” Daughdrill, Executive Director of the Mississippi Public Health Association, published a scathing editorial criticizing the legislative cuts, noting that the budget allocates to the state Department of Corrections roughly nine times the amount of funds that the Health Department receives. He suggested that Mississippians “should be personally appalled” by the budget and contact state representatives, the Lieutenant Governor, and the Governor to express their views.

Department of Mental Health

The Mississippi Department of Mental Health is particularly concerned about more than $8 million in cuts.  The Mental Health department has eliminated 172 positions, although some employees were transferred to other positions within the agency, and cut forensic psychiatric beds, which allow psychiatrists to determine whether alleged criminals are mentally competent to stand trial.  Mental Health oversees various programs offering services to address mental illness (MI), intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), alcohol and drug addictions, and Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementia, including institutional and community programs and support services.

Health Care Trust Fund

The fate of the Mississippi Health Care Trust Fund is, perhaps, symbolic of the state’s budget woes. One of the first states to sue tobacco companies to collect funds required to treat ailing smokers, the state settled its lawsuit in 1997. In 1999, the legislature created the Fund.  Tobacco companies would pay money into the fund on an annual basis, where they would accrue interest; some of those funds would be directed for use by the Health Care Expendable Fund. Due to budget constraints, legislators sent funds for many years directly into the state budget.  Some funds were used on health care, while others were diverted to other programs. The state will receive roughly $116 million as part of its annual settlement payment in 2016, but the funds will be used in the budget.  The Fund will have a zero balance as of July 1, 2016.

Advocates view the overall cuts, which may appear relatively small, as unduly burdensome on a system that is already struggling to allocate funds to programs. As July first approaches, the possibility of changes to the budget diminish, but that hasn’t stopped advocates from raising their voices and demanding change.