Bill Frist jokes from time to time about being out of politics and how he’s free from that realm, but at every turn the former U.S. senator seems to end up smack in the middle of something integrally related to the political world.
The connection showed up again Thursday when Frist, a heart and lung transplant surgeon, held a session on health care, and it turned out to be another example of how making smart decisions in one specific area, seemingly having nothing to do with government, can end up being about a way to make government work better.
Frist’s latest effort put him in a three-man panel Thursday with Gov. Bill Haslam and Haslam’s chairman of a health and wellness task force, Dr. John Lacey.
The subject for the morning at the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza was a little known heart condition called atrial fibrillation. The ailment, which has to do with irregular heart rhythm, was presented as an example of an illness that goes under the radar but if held in check can save millions of dollars in medical care. Heart conditions are expensive.
That bit of information tends to get the attention of people like Haslam, who has an interest in holding down health care costs in order to do other things — like educate children.
Tennesseans’ Medicare payments for physician encounters due to atrial fibrillation total more than $17 million. Frist points to costs in Medicare, says Medicare drives entitlements, that entitlements drive the nation’s debt and that the nation’s debt affects the greatness of America.
That follows Frist’s passion for dealing in K-12 education, with his State Collaborative on Reforming Education, where he has said if you can conquer the problems in K-12 you can literally change the course of history in the United States.
“I do want to use my voice to go where problems are that aren’t identified, that, if we identify, can change the quality of life for Tennesseans,” Frist said Thursday.
Haslam has certainly noticed the connections being made by Frist, who Haslam said is one of the people who talked him into getting into politics.
“It’s interesting how often our lives overlap now, because of what he has committed his life to doing, working on the bigger problems that he thinks we can move in Tennessee — education being at the forefront, and obviously lending his expertise to health care issues,” Haslam said.
“That’s appropriate, because those two issues are where we struggle as a state as much as anywhere else. We rank in the 50 states in both of those somewhere in the 40s.”
As governor, Haslam has to deal with the costs of Medicaid, known as TennCare in Tennessee, as well as health care costs for state employees.
Haslam pointed to what might be considered an unrelated development — the strong potential that tuition is about to rise for college students by about 8.5 to 9.5 percent, putting pressure on families across the state.
“You say, ‘How’s that happening?’ It’s really simple,” Haslam said. “As the state budget has been picked over more and more by health care costs, it has left less money to go to other things.”
Haslam said if the state’s population is not healthy, that can work against the state in recruiting jobs.
“It’s probably not an accident that we rank low in education and in health factors,” Haslam said.
“Health care is a huge cost to the state of Tennessee. Almost a third of all the state’s dollars go to health care in one form or another.”
“The death rate in 2005-09 from heart disease has fallen 8.8 percent,” Lacey, who is also Haslam’s personal physician, said. “But heart disease remains the number one killer of Tennesseans.”
Lacey’s task force is still being put together, and its members, who will serve on a volunteer basis, will be announced in the coming weeks.
There was an unmistakable tone of irony in Thursday’s discussion. Health care businesses in Nashville and Middle Tennessee have a global impact, accounting for $62 billion in revenues and 400,000 jobs. The industry contributes $30 billion and 210,000 jobs to the local economy, according to the Nashville Health Care Council.
Yet the state ranking in the 40s nationally in health does not reflect such lofty numbers.
“It is inexcusable that we can’t do more,” Frist said. “We can do more. There’s no question.”
Frist said it’s important to do a better job making people understand that the link between K-12 education and health care can result directly in economic growth, including job creation.
“These are not problems that can’t be solved,” he said.
Frist said that while people think of health care in terms of hospital stays and a doctor’s work foremost, those elements probably account for only about 15 percent of the impact on how long a person lives. Genetics, socio-economic issues, health care disparities and other factors come into play.
“Forty percent is in this field of behavior, what we do to take care of ourselves, how we recognize what’s going on within ourselves,” Frist said.
“It’s that 40 percent that Dr. Lacey represents in terms of health, wellness and prevention. It’s what the governor is really here to say, that we get it, and it does create jobs if we can improve there. It does improve quality of life.”