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The Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable is seeking to elevate the experiences of Black women and girls who face barriers to accessing health care through its Mississippi Voices project.

The group is offering Mississippi women $200 to share their health care stories with them as part of the ongoing project.

Cassandra Welchlin, executive director of the Roundtable, said centering the lived experiences of women in Mississippi is essential to effectively advocating for health care policy changes, primarily Medicaid expansion. Mississippi is one of 12 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. If state leaders were to expand Medicaid, at least 225,000 Mississippians would qualify for health care coverage. Many of those who would qualify currently exist in the “health care coverage gap” where they cannot afford private insurance but make too much to qualify for Medicaid.

The project is a partnership with the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program and is funded by Community Catalyst, a nonprofit national health advocacy organization.

Welchlin said that her organization is primarily focused on the economic security of women in the state, and that health care advocacy is inseparable from that mission.

“We know that it (access to quality health care) serves as an equalizing force, particularly in communities of color … Health care can break you or can make you,” Welchlin said.

The project started in 2020 with eight focus groups held across the state where women across generational and economic lines shared their experiences of the state’s health care system. They heard horror stories of women putting off needed exams and surgeries because they couldn’t afford their insurer’s copay. Some women were not taking needed medications every day in order to make their supplies last longer.

Welchlin said a goal of the project is equipping the women with the knowledge and communication skills they need to organize in their own communities and hold their elected officials accountable.

“It’s important that they get to control that narrative, because they know what they’ve been through and what they need,” Welchlin said.

Welchlin said that a common thread that emerged throughout the project is that difficulty accessing health care exists for women across the board, regardless of their level of education and employment.

Regina Lewis is a 45-year-old Jackson native who, despite having a master’s degree, struggles to pay her medical bills.

Lewis works for a small nonprofit organization that doesn’t provide health insurance. This forced her to get insured through Mississippi’s Affordable Care Act marketplace, which features only a few providers.

Lewis says her insurance plan is lackluster and doesn’t include many in-network providers in her area. She has been seeing the same OB-GYN for 15 years, but has to pay out of pocket to see him because he’s not in her provider network. That kind of doctor-patient relationship was just too valuable for her to give up.

“It shouldn’t have to be that way,” Lewis said. “We should have a choice to receive quality care where we’re comfortable.”

Lewis also suffers from high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and gastroparesis. Some of her medications don’t have generic equivalents, the only medication types her insurance covers, so she has to pay $250 each month to manage these chronic conditions.

Welchlin said another major problem is that women aren’t believed when they tell health care providers what their needs are and that they aren’t invited into the decision making process with their doctors.

Lewis experienced this when she was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a disease that partially paralyzes the stomach and prevents the organ from emptying itself normally.

Only two treatment options were presented to Lewis, she said. One was a medication that had serious side effects, and the other was having a gastric pacemaker installed that would stimulate her stomach muscles with electricity, but that came with a high risk of repeated infections.

Lewis declined both options. To her, the added risks outweigh the benefits. Those were the only treatment options presented to her, so she manages the condition herself by severely limiting her diet. She feels like if she wasn’t a Black woman or had better insurance, she would have received better, more compassionate care.

“It’s like some doctors and people look down upon you because you have this type of health insurance instead of a true commercial insurance,” Lewis said.

To share your health care story for Mississippi Voices, text “MSVOICES” to (833) 621-1953.

Editor’s note: Black Women’s Roundtable has placed paid advertisements on Mississippi Today’s website. Mississippi Today maintains a clear separation between news and advertising content. As such, advertisers have no influence or control over Mississippi Today’s editorial decisions.

— Article credit to Will Stribling of Mississippi Today —

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