Health Policy Opportunities in the Southern States

Many of the nation’s most persistent health policy challenges are not only present but magnified in the Southern states. As a region, the South has the highest uninsured rate in the nation and a higher burden of chronic disease than other parts of the country. Rural hospital closures and health care workforce shortages in rural communities in the South threaten basic access to care. Systemic racism is increasingly recognized as a public health issue and is reflected in the stark racial disparities witnessed in maternal mortality rates, diabetes outcomes, and COVID-19 morbidity and mortality across the country and in the South.

Despite these challenges, the Southern states are well poised to make major advances in health. As state policymakers simultaneously prepare to respond to the urgent needs facing people and communities in the wake of COVID-19 while also dealing with strained state budgets in 2021, they have the opportunity to draw upon best practices and evidence-based policies and to innovate in the context of an incoming federal administration that has expressed eagerness to work with states to improve health.

The goals of this report are to inform state and local policymakers, as well as other stakeholders, about the health care policy landscape in the South. We provide a primer on public health financing and describe promising policy opportunities that Southern states could adopt to increase health care coverage and address health care affordability, improve access to health care services, bolster public health infrastructure, and advance health equity. The report features six issue modules on the following topics:
• Expanding Medicaid,
• Strengthening the public health infrastructure,
• Addressing social determinants of health,
• Reducing maternal mortality rates by extending post-partum coverage,
• Enforcing mental health parity protections, and
• Addressing health care costs and affordability.

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