America is full of the living dead — and Mississippi is ground zero.

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Millions of our fellow Americans are essentially living as if they were walking dead. No, it’s not the premise of the latest AMC apocalypse drama or a summer blockbuster — it’s the harsh reality for too many individuals and communities. They lack health insurance and, as a result, go undiagnosed. Untreated conditions manifest as silent killers.

The stark reality is that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, access to primary health care remains a privilege for the well-moneyed few rather than a fundamental right for all. Although there has been some progress, with a recent study showing that uninsured rates for minorities have plummeted, it is still not enough. According to a Yale Study, every year, 68,000 Americans die due to a lack of health care coverage, enough to fill Madison Square Garden more than three times over.

Nowhere is the phenomenon of the living dead more prevalent than in my home state of Mississippi, which researchers have found has the highest rate of preventable deaths in the country. Mississippi still has the dubious distinction of being one of ten states in our nation that have failed to expand Medicaid nearly 15 years after passing the Affordable Care Act. 

As the president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) and as a breast cancer survivor who has forgone medical treatment for three years due to lacking health insurance, I know all too well the devastating impact of our state’s refusal to expand Medicaid and have seen far too many of my fellow Mississippians join the living dead. 

The consequences of this policy failure are dire and far-reaching. The deeper you dive into the statistics, the more harrowing they become. Mississippi has some of the worst health outcomes in the country, with high rates of infant mortality, obesity and a host of other major diseases. These outcomes are not mere numbers but represent the lived experiences of people — parents, children, neighbors and friends — whose lives could be markedly improved with proper and increased access to health care.

The total lack of health care coverage for millions means that early diagnosis and treatment, which could prevent the progression of many diseases, are out of reach for many Mississippians and Americans, hitting hardest those who are already marginalized.

After years of advocacy by MCJ and other organizations, some lawmakers are finally having the courage to confront this epidemic of the living dead straight on. During this year’s legislative session in Mississippi, the House and the Senate made their first serious attempt to expand Medicaid coverage. If enacted, it would have extended coverage, according to KFF, to an estimated 123,000 Mississippians who fall in the Medicaid coverage gap due to them earning too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to be eligible for subsidies that help pay for private insurance.

Although its eventual collapse was harrowing, there is hope and recognition that we are closer than ever to notching this significant victory for Mississippians.

The phenomenon of the living dead extends beyond my home state. While Mississippi experiences a particularly severe situation, it serves as a poignant example of a more significant issue: the alarmingly high rates of health inequities across our nation. According to America’s Health Ranking, Mississippi ranks near the bottom — 43 out of 50 states — for the general population, but the situation is even more dire for individuals under the age of 34.

This is mainly seen in the South, where a whopping 97 percent of the nearly 2 million Americans in the Medicaid coverage gap reside. The failure to expand Medicaid is not just a political stance; it is a death sentence for many. Chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and lung disease often go unnoticed and untreated, leading to loss of life.

This is due primarily to the absence of accessible health care. To bridge this gap, extending Medicaid coverage for those in the Medicare coverage gap, and implementing comprehensive policies to break down the systemic obstacles to fair health care access is crucial.

The health care crisis in Mississippi is not just a state issue but a national disgrace. It highlights the urgent need for Medicaid expansion and comprehensive health care reforms to ensure that no one has to suffer or die from preventable diseases. 

By taking bold and compassionate action, we can transform the lives of the living dead and build a healthier future for all Americans. To end this, lawmakers in Mississippi and across this nation must finally put people over politics and deliver much-needed policies like Medicaid expansion and increased access to health care to meet the urgency that this crisis demands. 

Ultimately, more than just politicians need to be involved in this effort. We, the people of all races, genders, socioeconomic statuses and more, must come together and hold them accountable for their failures — because for far too many among the living dead, tomorrow is not promised. 

Vangela M. Wade is president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm committed to advancing racial and economic justice.

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