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In Mississippi’s Medicaid debate,...

In Mississippi’s Medicaid debate, look at rapidly increasing rural mortality rates

By: Sid Salter - April 17, 2024

Sid Salter

  • Columnist Sid Salter cites report written by USDA economists that says there is a growing natural-cause mortality gap between rural and urban areas of the U.S.

As Mississippi legislators head to conference on the state’s first sincere consideration of some form of Medicaid expansion, we’ve heard alarms sounded by the right and the left on why the state alternately should or should not expand Medicaid coverage for the state’s working poor.

Proponents of Medicaid expansion celebrate the fact that Mississippi is finally taking steps toward reclaiming a portion of the federal tax dollars Mississippians have been paying to provide expanded Medicaid coverage for the working poor in 40 other states but not in our state where healthcare disparities loom large in the poorest state in the union.

Opponents of the Mississippi House version of Medicaid expansion in Mississippi and the other 10 states across the country that have not expanded coverage make three primary arguments – the state can’t afford the state share of the costs, expanding Medicaid will discourage finding work, and states should not increase enrollment in a “broken program.”

The political wars and the messaging generated by both sides are contradictory and confusing. But a March 2024 U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service report suggests that for rural Mississippians, the state’s Medicaid expansion debate actually might have life or death consequences.

The report, entitled “The Nature of the Rural-Urban Mortality Gap,” was authored by USDA economists Kelsey L. Thomas, Elizabeth A. Dobis, and David A. McGranahan.

The researchers concluded that “The 2019 age-adjusted natural-cause mortality (NCM) rate for the prime working-age population (aged 25–54) was 43 percent higher in rural areas than in urban areas. This is a shift from 25 years ago when NCM rates in urban and rural areas were similar for this age group.”

More specifically, the report’s findings were: “There is a growing natural-cause mortality gap between rural and urban areas of the U.S.; Over the last 20 years, the difference between age-adjusted natural-cause mortality rates for the overall population in rural and urban areas grew from being 6 percent higher in rural areas than urban areas in 1999 to 20 percent higher in rural areas than urban areas in 2019;

“The rural, prime working-age population was the only group to experience an increase in NCM rates, resulting in an even greater increase in the mortality gap between rural and urban areas. In 1999, the NCM rate for the prime working-age population in rural areas was 6 percent higher than in urban areas, growing to 43 percent higher in 2019; and the more rural the area, the greater the increase in prime working-age NCM rates (or smaller the decrease) over time.”

Why does that matter? The report found that rural working-age people in the South are dying at a higher rate than their urban counterparts – and Mississippi is a rural state.

According to the U.S. Health and Human Services, Mississippi is rural, where 65 (79.3%) of the 82 counties are considered rural areas. Mississippi has three standard metropolitan statistical areas (MSA): the Jackson Metropolitan Area; the Hattiesburg Area; and the Gulf Coast Region. Desoto County, located in North Mississippi, is included in the Memphis, Tennessee MSA. All 82 counties in Mississippi are designated whole or in part as medically underserved areas.

Is the lack of expanded Medicaid a sole-source cause of those health disparities? Of course not. The report’s authors acknowledge high incidences of obesity, smoking, poor-quality diets, and other place-based influences on the mortality gap, along with: “Both hospital closures and physician shortages in rural areas are also a growing concern and could lead to higher rural mortality rates as well.”

They likewise note: “It is plausible that differences in healthcare resources and health behaviors across urban and rural areas could contribute to the stagnation and even increasing mortality rates in rural areas, as the accessibility, quality, and affordability of care could be compromised. Healthcare resources and services vary by population density, often leaving rural areas with limited medical treatment and less accessible options that could adversely impact mortality rates.”

The most germane passage in this study of rural people dying faster than urban neighbors is this one: “Regionally, differences in state implementation of Medicaid expansion under the 2010 Affordable Care Act could have increased implications for uninsured rural residents in states without expansions by potentially influencing the frequency of medical care for those at risk and preventive measures.”

About the Author(s)
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Sid Salter

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications at Mississippi State University. Sid is a member of the Mississippi Press Association's Hall of Fame. His syndicated columns have been published in Mississippi and several national newspapers since 1978.