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Legislators, stakeholders briefed on health care status of Tennessee

Jan. 15, 2015, 9:03 AM

Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos addressed Tennessee legislators and stakeholders from the health care community at the Nashville Community Health Forum Jan. 14. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)
Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos addressed Tennessee legislators and stakeholders from the health care industry at the Nashville Community Health Forum Jan. 14. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

Tennessee must improve the health of its citizens if it wants to offer an attractive workforce to businesses, Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said during a Nashville Community Health Forum attended by state legislators and other stakeholders.

“More than 220,000 Tennesseans do not qualify for TennCare and they work for employers that … have a hard time making their business offer health care benefits,” Zeppos said. “At the same time, these employees are a vital part of our workforce. And a well employee is a good employee.”

“We must improve our health overall to improve our workforce,” he said.

More than 400 people attended the standing-room-only forum Jan. 14 at Vanderbilt’s Student Life Center. They heard from a full slate of state health care experts, including Tennessee Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner; Dr. Mike Schatzlein, president and CEO of Saint Thomas Health; Rick Johnson, CEO of the Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness; Dr. Fred Ralston of Fayetteville Medical Associates; Melinda Buntin, chair of the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt; Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce; and Joseph Webb, CEO of Metro Nashville General Hospital.

The event was moderated by Dr. Jeff Balser, vice chancellor for health affairs at Vanderbilt. He said the agenda was to better understand Insure Tennessee, Gov. Bill Hasam’s proposed two-year pilot program to provide health care coverage to Tennesseans who don’t have access to health insurance or have limited options.

Dr. Jeff Balser, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of Vanderbilt School of Medicine. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)
Dr. Jeff Balser, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of Vanderbilt School of Medicine. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

“We want to understand Gov. Haslam’s plan and how it would lead to healthier lives,” Balser said. “And we really want to understand the impact of this plan on the economy of the state.”

Some sobering statistics were offered by Johnson, including that Tennessee ranks in the bottom 10 states in the country in overall health care outcomes.

“There really is a health care crisis in this state,” he said.

“You need to know that almost 70 percent of the people in Tennessee are classified as overweight or obese,” Johnson said. “We have near epidemic rates of hypertension and stroke, very high rates of cardiovascular disease.”

Four factors—tobacco addiction, obesity, physical inactivity and substance abuse—are the main reasons for poor health in Tennessee, Dreyzehner said.

“These are stubborn facts,” Dreyzehner said. “That means we are all in the same boat, and the boat is in rough waters. Too many of us don’t have life jackets.”

Melinda Buntin, chair of the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)
Melinda Buntin, chair of the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

A series of maps shown by Buntin illustrated the potential of Insure Tennessee to vastly improve the number of Tennesseans with health insurance. Tennessee’s least insured county, Sevier, could improve from 30 percent to 10 percent uninsured under Insure Tennessee, she said.

If Insure Tennessee became law and 200,000 Tennesseans signed up for insurance, more than $1 billion in federal money would be injected into the state, said Matt Murray of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.

“This means a lot of additional purchasing power flowing through the health care system,” Murray said. “It means about 15,000 new jobs for Tennesseans. It means over $900 million in income for Tennesseans.”

Legislators opposed to the Affordable Care Act would not contradict themselves by voting for Insure Tennessee, Schatzlein said.

“This has nothing to do with Obamacare,” he said. “This is a unique-to-Tennessee program. … It is a way to get billions of dollars of taxes that Tennesseans are paying that is going into less-effectively designed programs in other states and bring it back here in a way that’s purely Tennessee.”

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