Mississippi Senate Press Secretary Arnold Lindsay, right, receives a resolution from a senator at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

by Emily Wagster Pettus, Associated Press

The Mississippi Senate voted Friday to ease some restrictions on community-owned hospitals by letting them consolidate or collaborate with health care facilities outside their current service areas.

Republican Sen. Joey Fillingane, of Sumrall, said the bill is an effort to maintain access to health care in a state where several hospitals face financial difficulties because they serve large numbers of uninsured patients.

“There’s all sorts of barriers that we’re trying to eliminate to allow these hospitals to have as much flexibility as they can in order survive and thrive,” Fillingane said.

Under current state law, government-owned community hospitals are not allowed to operate outside of service areas that are established when they first open, he said. Those areas are typically restricted by city or county boundaries, or slightly beyond.

Removing some barriers would allow those hospitals to consolidate or to work together by sharing some business functions, Fillingane said.

Senators voted 48-0 to pass the bill, sending it to the House for more work.

The state health officer, Dr. Dan Edney, told legislators in November that 54% of Mississippi’s rural hospitals are at risk of closing because of financial pressure.

Mississippi has a large number of uninsured residents, and health care facilities have faced rising expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rural, impoverished Delta has lost population over the past several years, and some hospitals in that area have been curtailing services and cutting jobs.

Mississippi is one of the poorest states and has high rates of heart disease, diabetes and other ailments. It is also among the 11 states that have not expanded Medicaid to people working low-wage jobs that don’t provide private health insurance.

Expansion is an option under the federal health care law signed in 2010 by former President Barack Obama.

Legislative Democrats have said Mississippi is losing about $1 billion of federal money each year by refusing Medicaid expansion. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has publicly opposed putting more people on the health insurance program that is funded by state and federal governments.