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Poor health costing Tennessee billions

Hank Hayes • Aug 22, 2018 at 8:29 AM

KINGSPORT — What Rick Johnson said didn’t exactly shock anyone in the Kingsport Chamber’s Eastman Board Room on Tuesday.

“We are not doing very well in terms of health in this state,” Johnson, CEO of the Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness, said during a roundtable discussion attended by business and health care leaders. “We’re way too good for that, and we’ve got to do something about it, and we have been working toward that the last five years.”

In November 2017, the Nashville-based Sycamore Institute released a study that found Tennessee’s higher rates of chronic diseases cost to the state’s economy more than $5.3 billion in 2015. In May, Tennessee was named the state with the highest rate of childhood obesity in the nation and continues to rank in the bottom 10 states for health in America. America’s Health Rankings put Tennessee at 44th in health outcomes.

The Sycamore Institute gave Sullivan County an overall health ranking of 25th out of 95 counties. Hawkins County ranked 70th. Washington County was 19th.

The roundtable was part of the foundation’s Healthier Tennessee® initiative to get more communities aware of the public health crisis at the grassroots level.

Healthy Kingsport  has been a valued and important partner, is a Healthier Tennessee® community. … Kingsport was one of nine pilot communities,” Johnson noted.

After Johnson asked for feedback, people in the room advocated more sidewalks, more childhood education and maybe even increasing the state’s cigarette tax, which was last hiked by the Tennessee General Assembly by 42 cents to 62 cents a pack.

Randy Wycoff, dean of the College of Public Health at East Tennessee State University, said there’s a challenge to figure out how small businesses can benefit more from an investment in health.

“We’ve got to talk about raising the price of cigarettes. … The overarching challenge is the need for continuing economic development,” Wycoff stressed.

Perry Stuckey, Eastman’s senior vice president and chief human resources officer, emphasized Tennessee’s next governor “has to be serious” about improving the state’s health.

Johnson concluded Tennessee’s health outcomes might mirror the state’s strides in education improvement.

“I take a lot of hope in that. … If we can do it in education, we can do it in health,” he said.

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