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Gov. Reeves Mum on Health Care Meetings, Claims No Documents Exist

During that time, Mississippi’s health industry experienced significant turmoil.

Mississippi Governor Jonathan Tate Reeves,Wikipedia

As the state’s hospital crisis continues, Gov. Tate Reeves has held meetings on health care, but his office refuses to say what they're about.

His staffers also claim there are no official documents for those meetings, despite internal correspondence that indicates otherwise and despite Reeves proposing detailed health policy changes.

Several experts, including a former governor, say the lack of documentation for meetings and the lack of detail on Reeves’ calendar is unusual. One national expert called it "bad practice.”

Reeves appears to have attended meetings in the Governor’s Mansion from May to August on topics ranging from “Medicaid Policies” to “Healthcare Industry Issues” and “Healthcare Policies,” Mississippi Today discovered through a records request of the governor’s calendar. 

During that time, Mississippi’s health industry experienced significant turmoil. The state Medicaid division disenrolled thousands of beneficiaries, while hospitals struggled. One hospital closed, while several others shuttered departments and applied to close their inpatient beds because of financial difficulties.

Amid the upheaval, it’s not clear exactly what happened in those meetings, nor who attended. Reeves’ calendar only shows the time, date and place for most meetings, and if his calendar lists the meeting topic, it usually doesn't list with whom he met. His spokesperson, Shelby Wilcher, did not respond to multiple emails asking who attended those health care meetings and details about the topics. 

When Mississippi Today requested official documents from the meetings, Reeves’ office claimed that, aside from a few email threads about scheduling, no notes or documents were used in or produced from the meetings. 

One of the email threads produced as a result of the request revealed that the governor requires a briefing document that includes information about meeting attendees and the topic to be discussed before all of his meetings.

“For all meetings with him, we need to provide a briefing document beforehand,” Reeves’ scheduler Barrie Nelson said in one thread. “Can you please get me some information so I can make sure we have our ducks in a row?”

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However, when Mississippi Today followed up by requesting briefing documents for those meetings about health care, Reeves’ office claimed that those, too, did not exist. 

The state Public Records Act defines a public record as documentary materials used "in the conduct, transaction or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty or function of any public body." That means if those briefing documents exist, they would theoretically be considered a public record. 

John Pelissero, director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, was confused about the discrepancy regarding “briefing documents.”

“It's striking, because you have emails that showed that they were expected to produce documents in order to have the meeting with the governor,” he said. “Even if they're not hiding it, even if they're trying to be transparent, they don't appear to be transparent. When you create the perception there is something irregular … then you've created an ethical issue for yourself because the governor's office is eroding trust among the public.”

He went on to say that that strategy directly works against the governor’s interest, and that it’s critical for the public to know if any public business was discussed in those meetings or if decisions were made in them that would affect people.

“The thing about being governor is that you're typically going to be more effective if you're transparent,” Pelissero said. “The public that chose that individual to be the governor has the expectation that the governor is going to be acting on those things that the governor campaigned for as the candidate, and so there's sort of a duty to your voters to demonstrate to them that you are, in fact, working on those things that you campaigned for.”

According to Ronnie Musgrove, who served as governor from 2000 to 2004, his calendar showed more detail. It included, in most cases, both whom Musgrove met with and an overview of the meeting topic. 

Powerpoints and paper documents were common at most meetings when Musgrove was governor, he said, and a copy of those would have been provided to his office. 

“Of course, I cannot say as to what the reasons are that they are not producing information, but if the information exists, it certainly should be produced,” he said. “Maybe (Reeves) thinks that showing his hand early on might produce some difficult discussions, but anything in health care is going to produce a lot of discussion.”

Musgrove conceded that there were occasions he remained tight-lipped about certain projects, but that was only when it would be “damaging if the details were known publicly,” he said. 

“Being governor is an elected position, and it is one that's being paid for by the taxpayers,” he said. “I believe that the people are entitled to know what the potential policies are and some of the details about them, especially before they go into effect.”

Former Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who served from 2012 to 2020, declined an interview. 

Tom Hood, the Mississippi Ethics Commission’s executive director, said the commission’s ability to look into public records issues is “very limited." Only after a records complaint is filed can the commission make a determination, he said.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Devna Bose, a Neshoba County native, covers community health. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied print journalism and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Devna reported on education at Chalkbeat Newark and at the Post and Courier’s Education Lab, and on race and social justice at the Charlotte Observer. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Star-Ledger and the Associated Press, and she has appeared on WNYC to discuss her reporting. Devna has been awarded for her coverage of K-12 education in the Carolinas.

About Mississippi Today

We believe that an informed Mississippi is a better Mississippi. We center readers in everything we do, informing–and engaging–Mississippians through reporting, podcasts, events and online communities.

Founded in 2016 as the state’s first nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom, Mississippi Today’s roots in Capitol coverage have grown to encompass a myriad of beats beyond politics and policy, including education, public health, justice, environment, equity, and, yes, sports.