Chandler leads efforts to improve Kentuckians' health
As the new president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, former U.S. Congressman Ben Chandler will lead ongoing efforts to help residents of the state become healthier. The challenges of improving the health of Kentuckians are significant because this state ranks at or near the bottom in most health indicators - smoking, obesity, diabetes, cancer deaths and heart disease - compared to other states. Woodford County does fare better than most other Kentucky counties, which is not surprising because health indicators are typically more positive in communities where unemployment rates are low and residents have a reasonable standard of living, Chandler said. With Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center and other exercise facilities in the community, Woodford Countians have a better opportunity to maintain a healthier lifestyle than Kentuckians living in other counties, he said. One of the initiatives of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky is its ongoing support of a statewide smoking ban in public places. Versailles and Woodford County both passed ordinances in 2014 that ban smoking in enclosed public places and workplaces. About half of Kentucky's public school campuses are not smoke free. Proposed legislation, supported by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, during this session of the Kentucky General Assembly could result in a smoking ban on all public school campuses, Chandler said. He described that initiative as a priority, but "we would obviously prefer to have a statewide ordinance that would make all public places smoke-free." He said making all Kentucky school campuses smoke-free zones would be a very important step in that direction. "We have the data that shows smoke-free makes a difference," said Chandler. "We also know that it can be implemented very cheaply. It doesn't cost a lot of taxpayer money for the state to go smoke-free. And the results are pretty dramatic and important in terms of the better health." He described obesity as another "extremely important" health issue that needs to be addressed, "but the solutions are not as easy. It's a problem that's more difficult to solve and more expensive to solve." Since 2001, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky has invested $26.7 million in health policy research, advocacy and pilot project grants across the state to address healthcare needs of residents. "We're not advocating or lobbying - whichever word you want to use - for anything that isn't good," said Chandler of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. "Show me somebody who doesn't want to be healthier?" People in Kentucky and across the country should be talking more about health and less about healthcare, he added. Because Americans (and Kentuckians) are not staying healthy with preventive care, people in this country are spending twice as much money on healthcare (per capita) than any other country in the world, Chandler said. "People eat poorly. They smoke a lot. They don't get enough exercise. As a result, they are less healthy and we have to spend more money in this country fixing the (health) problems that they have," Chandler said. He said that's why it's critical to educate people so they have the information to make decisions that will support better health. What we eat and how much we exercise both are important factors in reducing the obesity rates in Kentucky and across the country. Community Health Research Officer Rachelle Seger described health data as a piece of information to "paint a picture" of what's happening in a community and a tool for comparing one community to others in Kentucky and across the country. "It's one piece of the puzzle," she explained. Other pieces of the puzzle are "what's happening on the ground as far as health goes and then what is leadership in our state or county . saying about health in our area. Those are all important things" to consider for lawmakers who are making health policy decisions, Seger said. Chandler said it's difficult for policy-makers to make good decisions if they don't have good data. "So it gives them the information they need to create good policy," he added. He cited a statewide smoke-free policy as one example where the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky can provide expert data to lawmakers, which will give them research that shows lives and taxpayer dollars will be saved if they vote for a ban on smoking in public places. "I have been on the other side of it (as a congressman), and I have seen the importance of data in making decisions," said Chandler. For residents living in areas where families do not have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and children don't have sidewalks to walk to school - choosing a healthier lifestyle can be more challenging. "So it's partly education and it's partly access," said Bonnie Hackbarth, director of communications for the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. Currently, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky is working with six communities across the state to address the issue of childhood obesity by promoting healthier food in school lunches and vending machines, and supporting efforts to bring fresh produce in communities by coordinating with local farmers' markets. "So we are involved in making these things more accessible," said Chandler. Grant dollars are one way the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky supports local efforts to establish policies that will lead to healthier behaviors, he added. The former Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Kentucky governor said, "The health of our people ought to be a nonpartisan issue. I don't care whether it's a Republican or a Democrat who's pushing a (statewide) smoke-free law. I just want a smoke-free law. I want our people to be healthier - that's all we care about at this foundation." The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky awards about $1.5 million in grant dollars annually to support demonstration or pilot projects in communities across the commonwealth. These three- and four-year projects may eventually provide proven examples of how communities can promote healthier lifestyles across Kentucky. "You have to have results on the ground before you can get your statistics together" to show that these initiatives have had positive results in those communities, Chandler said. He anticipates the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky becoming more involved in health advocacy initiatives to change state law during his tenure as president. "Foundations can only do so much," said Chandler. "The government's got to act in order to get laws in place that lead to better health behaviors." Yet, he knows getting people to engage in healthy long-term behaviors will likely remain a challenge as the foundation works to get the message out to Kentuckians that they need to be healthier. "We don't want to see Kentucky last in everything where health in concerned. We want to see us do well. We want to see our people be healthier," Chandler said. Prior to being named president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, Chandler was executive director of the Kentucky Humanities Council. He represented the 6th Congressional district, from 2004 to 2013 after being state auditor (1991 to 1993) and Kentucky Attorney General (1995 to 2003). During his tenure as attorney general, Chandler helped create the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky through a charitable trust established as a result of Blue Cross Blue Shield -Anthem merger in 2000. A lawsuit resulted in a settlement of $45 million that led to the establishment of the foundation, Chandler said. "It's done a lot of good work over the years. But there's clearly an enormous amount left to do. And all I have to do is cite the health rankings to you. Despite the good work that the foundation has done, the needle in Kentucky still hasn't moved a whole lot." He said the foundation remains focused on moving Kentucky up from the bottom or near the bottom in health conditions and indicators. Currently, Chandler said Kentucky - the nation's 26th largest state - ranks 45th in terms of overall health. "And that's just unacceptable on its face," he added. To improve its ranking, people need to engage in healthier behaviors so health conditions do not become acute, and very, very expensive to treat in our healthcare system, Chandler said. "So you've got a big cost issue there. And on top of that, of course, you've got the quality of life issue," he explained. "Who wants to feel bad? Who wants to be sick? ".There isn't anything more important - really in life - than your health..." With a new president getting ready to take office, Chandler acknowledged there are many unknowns about the future of the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) and how changes at the federal level will affect health insurance and healthcare issues for Kentuckians. The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky will continue to keep an eye on any changes because "we're interested in anything that's going to make people healthier," Chandler said. "We're too small to take on all of these massive issues so what we've got to do is prioritize a thing or two that we think that we can impact. And one of those (health behaviors) . is smoking. We believe we can have an impact on the smoking rate in this state. And we know - based on the data - that will make people healthier. And it will save money" on our healthcare costs. Note: Chandler's family owns The Woodford Sun.