Election season is a meaningful time to discuss important issues, and we believe there is a significant topic that must receive attention this summer and fall.

Across the nation, rural hospitals are being squeezed by various financial pressures, a trend that is more acute in one of the country’s poorest and most rural states. Five Mississippi hospitals have closed since 2013, and four others declared bankruptcy last year, although they each remained open. A report released earlier this year by consulting firm Navigant claimed 31 of the state’s 64 rural hospitals were at risk of closing because of poor finances.

It’s a challenge that demands solutions. It’s one that cries out for robust debate from candidates in this year’s statewide elections.

Any time a hospital closes in rural Mississippi, it brings a myriad of consequences. Health care options are limited. Residents find themselves farther from emergency care, and many likely skip primary care visits because of inconvenience. Meanwhile, small communities lose a major employer and an economic driver.

We continue to believe that Medicaid expansion must be part of the path forward. The 2010 Affordable Care Act allows states to offer Medicaid coverage to able-bodied adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line. In Mississippi’s case, the federal government would cover 90 percent of the cost. However, the Magnolia State is one of 14 that have declined to expand their coverage.

Mississippi’s hospitals must care for any patient that visits them. When those individuals are unable to pay, the hospitals are left unreimbursed – and their margins are stretched thinner. That’s where Medicaid expansion would make a difference.

For some Republicans, Medicaid expansion has become toxic because of its association with former Democratic President Barack Obama. But the fact is many red states have also implemented Medicaid expansion following conservative principles. Saving rural healthcare shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

The Mississippi Hospital Association recently unveiled its innovative Mississippi Cares plan that could allow the state to expand Medicaid without expending any taxpayer dollars. Instead, the state’s portion of the cost would be funded by payments from beneficiaries and from hospitals.

Tim Moore, the association’s president and CEO, told the Associated Press the total cost of expansion would be about $1.5 billion. The federal government would cover $1.3 billion, and the remaining $150 million would come from policy payers and hospitals. Moore said if 300,000 recipients paid $20 a month, that would generate up to $72 million a year, although he noted that those in deep poverty would likely be allowed to pay less. Moore said hospitals would pay the other $78 million. Moore also compared the plan to one passed in Indiana under then-Gov. Mike Pence.

We believe this plan is worthy of further study and consideration. It’s time for state officials to get past ideological brands and labels and to roll up their sleeves to address the rural healthcare crisis.

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