Gov. Bill Haslam
Governor Launches Health & Wellness Task Force
Just prior to his inauguration in January, Gov. Bill Haslam announced his intent to create the Task Force on Health and Wellness, assembling members of the public and private sectors to address the multifactorial issues impacting the overall health status of the state’s citizens.
Under the direction of Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Susan Cooper, RN, MSN, who agreed to remain in her position on an interim basis with the new administration, the state has seen some improvement in health status rankings but still remains at or near the bottom in many categories. The 2010 edition of America’s Health Rankings put Tennessee at 42nd in the nation. However, this is a marked improvement from the 2005 rankings when the state came in at 48th.
In fact, Tennessee actually leads the nation in some health indicators including having the highest immunization rate and next-to-lowest rate of binge drinking. As with many states, Tennessee has seen a significant drop in the number of smokers over the past few years but still has a long way to go to be ‘tobacco free.’
Despite these glimmers of good news, Tennessee remains in the bottom fifth of the nation in terms of overall health for many reasons including the high rate of obesity and all that comes with it— diabetes, heart disease, stroke and hypertension, among other co-morbid conditions. In creating the task force, the governor noted health and wellness not only impact an individual’s quality of life but also have a direct effect on state budgets, allocation of limited resources and the attraction of new businesses to Tennessee.
Alexia Poe, communications director for Haslam, noted, “For him personally, health and wellness is an important part of his life. He thought this task force would be a good way to focus on healthy living and healthy choices in Tennessee by bringing together members of public health agencies, private health interests, business, education, consumers and other stakeholders to look at strategies to improve the health of Tennesseans.”
Although not a new concept, Poe said the governor believes the best way to tackle the tough health issues facing the state is to create dynamic partnerships to collaboratively leverage the resources already in place. “The governor hopes this group can really play a role in helping us move the needle on improving health,” she said.
John W. Lacey, III, MD, chief medical officer and senior vice president of University of Tennessee Medical Center was tapped by Haslam to chair the new task force. Lacey, who is also a practicing internist, was Haslam’s personal physician in Knoxville for many years prior to the governor’s move to Nashville.
In early June, Haslam and Lacey joined Sen. Bill Frist, MD, at a press conference in conjunction with a workshop on atrial fibrillation to underscore the value of working together to manage chronic diseases and address prevention as a means to improve health and lower costs.
“Almost a third of all state dollars go to healthcare in one form or other,” said Haslam, “and anything we can do to control that cost is significant.” He added that the dollars spent on healthcare have a broad impact, citing the recent tuition hikes at Tennessee colleges and universities as a byproduct of decreased state funding. “As the state’s budget has been taken over more and more by healthcare costs, it’s left less money to go to higher-ed and other things,” Haslam said. “If we are going to do all the things we want to as a state, we’re going to have to lower the costs of healthcare.”
Haslam also addressed the importance of improving health and wellness as an economic development factor. “It’s a competitive world, and employers look and see what are all the cost factors that impact a business being here; and if you look at a population that’s not as healthy as it can be, that works against us in recruiting jobs.”
To begin to move the needle on prevention and overall wellness, Lacey said the task force would look at evidence-based, proven strategies to address the major drivers of healthcare costs. He added the initial work of the task force would be to bring together various stakeholders from across the state to work collaboratively to define those drivers of chronic disease and other healthcare challenges and then share strategies to tackle them.
Lacey said he recognizes the challenges vary by community, as do available resources. “One size will not fit all. It is a daunting task. We don’t underestimate the challenge that lies ahead, but the goals are worthy and the work, therefore, must be done.”
He continued, “My experience has been when Tennesseans are passionate about an issue and then take ownership of it, great things can happen in our state. That’s why I’m excited by what we are doing.”
Lacey, who is currently assembling task force members, said that Tennessee has an edge by having ready access to national experts such as Sen. Bill Frist, who has agreed to work with the group in an advisory role.
To really improve the state’s health status and its citizens’ quality of life will take a true public/private partnership, Poe concluded. “Certainly when we’re healthier that’s less cost to the state and to the nation … to hospitals and to communities,” she noted, “but also the governor sees it as part of personal responsibility … learning to take an active role and learning to make good choices.”
Echoing a challenge the governor has often made, Lacey concurred. He called upon Tennesseans to look at barriers including diet and lack of physical activity that “stand between our current state of health and the state of health and wellness that we want for ourselves.”