Barbour Chooses Black Physician To Lead Medicaid

Gov. Haley Barbour on Thursday announced Dr. Warren A. Jones as the new director of the Mississippi Medicaid program.

"It is a tremendous catch for the state,'' Barbour said. "We had reached out to him several weeks ago.''

Jones, 55, will start at Medicaid on Monday. He said one of the first things he wants to do is talk to employees about finding "efficiencies'' to save money in the program, which faces about a $60 million deficit this year.

"I only hope each and every one of you stays close to your phone. I may need your assistance,'' Jones told more than 100 at a news conference in Jackson.

Jones, of Ridgeland, is a past president of the 93,000-member American Academy of Family Physicians. He is associate vice chancellor for multicultural affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and has held the post of assistant professor of family medicine at Howard University.

Jones becomes the second black state agency director selected by Barbour. The governor had been criticized for appointing mostly white men for key state jobs. Until now, the only black agency director hired by Republican Barbour is Christopher Epps, a holdover from the administration of Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

Jones was not immediately available for comment Wednesday, and Barbour spokesman Pete Smith would only say Barbour would make his selection known on Thursday.

Before Barbour was inaugurated Jan. 13, he said he was having trouble finding a qualified administrator willing to work for the $93,500 that the Medicaid director's job pays.

Barbour had appointed Dr. Wallace Conerly to serve as interim Medicaid director. Conerly, who retired last year as the University of Mississippi medical school dean, said he wanted to serve no more than 60 days and one of his primary responsibilities would be helping Barbour find a permanent director.

Barbour said earlier this month that he had tried to hire a black physician with a master's degree in business administration to lead Medicaid, but the doctor was making much more than the job pays.

Medicaid is a complex state-federal program that provides health insurance for the needy, aged, blind and disabled and for low-income families with children. The program serves about 720,000 Mississippians - about a quarter of the state's population.

Rica Lewis-Payton, who led Medicaid the past four years in the Musgrove administration, left the program when Barbour took office. She is now working at UMC.

During last year's gubernatorial campaign, Barbour criticized the growth of Medicaid during Musgrove's tenure.

Ebony magazine's Web site says Jones earned a chemistry degree from Dillard University in New Orleans and a medical degree from Louisiana State University.

A Web site by Pfizer pharmaceutical company identifies Jones is a family physician and is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Jones visited Pfizer headquarters in January 2003 for a program that lets physicians meet with the company's senior managers, doctors and scientists.

Barbour's Washington lobbying firm from which the governor recently resigned - Barbour Griffith & Rogers - listed Pfizer among its clients.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)