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Mississippi to pay $1 million to PPACA exchange contractor

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Gov. Phil Bryant, R, said Thursday that the state is giving $1 million to a federal contractor that will be helping to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

The Mississippi Development Authority will be providing the money through economic development incentive payments to General Dynamics Corp.

General Dynamics said it will hire 1,000 Mississippians to run a new PPACA health insurance exchange call center in Hattiesburg, Miss. The workers are supposed to answer questions from consumers and others about the exchanges.

Bryant made the announcement in Hattiesburg without mentioning the tie to PPACA.

Bryant torpedoed an attempt by state Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, a fellow Republican, to set up a state-run PPACA exchange, saying any entanglement risked giving the federal government a back-door way to force the state to expand its Medicaid program.

Because Mississippi is not setting up its own exchange, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will be responsible for providing exchange services for Mississippi residents through a “federally facilitated exchange” (FFE).

Mississippi officials who oppose PPACA typically refer to it as “Obamacare.”

“No, the state is most certainly not aiding in the implementation of Obamacare,” Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock wrote in an email. “The employees who will hold the new jobs at this facility will answer questions on a range of programs coordinated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Some questions may come from residents in the multiple states in this country that, like Mississippi, have declined to implement the insurance exchanges mandated by Obamacare.”

Chaney said he welcomed General Dynamics’ expansion.

HHS officials said the new call center will be part of an around-the-clock, seven-days-a-week operation that will include up to 14 call centers around the country.

Vangent, a unit of General Dynamics, has a $530 million contract with HHS.

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During the first year that the contract is in effect, Vangent is supposed to help with both Medicare and exchange operations.

Bryant and state Republican lawmakers are locked in a standoff with Democrats over efforts to use PPACA funding to expand the state’s Medicaid program.

Mississippi has about 3 million residents. Roughly 640,000 are already enrolled in Medicaid, and lawmakers estimate another 300,000 could become eligible if the state expands the program.

Because of the fight, lawmakers during the regular session passed neither a bill to reauthorize the state-federal program that provides health coverage to the poor and disabled, nor the bill that would pay for its operations in the year beginning July 1.

“I’m sure he’s looking at it from the job perspective,” said Rep Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, a Medicaid expansion proponent who points to a study that it will create thousands of jobs. “That’s what we’re trying to say is, we need a vote on this from the job perspective.”

It’s the second call center in Hattiesburg for General Dynamics, which announced plans in February to hire 250 people by 2014 to answer questions about how to fill out federal college student aid applications. So far, 110 workers have been hired at that operation, said MDA spokeswoman Marlo Dorsey.

She said the response to company recruitment efforts persuaded General Dynamics that Hattiesburg could support a much larger operation

“It went so well and they really felt like the workforce would be really good, demographically, for them to have a larger operation,” Dorsey said, citing the large number of college students in the city.

The “large majority” of the 1,000 jobs will be full-time positions, she said, but was unable to offer a pay range.

The company is renting space in Cloverleaf Center, a redeveloped mall owned by Equity Alliance of Hattiesburg. In addition to the $1 million to help retrofit a 65,000-square-foot former Stein Mart store, the state gave General Dynamics $150,000 to help build out a 17,500-square-foot space for the student aid call center.

The company could also benefit from state job training subsidies and state and local tax breaks.

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