Tennessee's health issues hurt its economy, report says

In this Sept. 20, 2016, staff file photo, state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, listens to attendees during the Education Mini-Summit 2016 at the Volkswagen Conference Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Tennessee's poor health status costs the state billions of dollars, and policy makers are taking notice.

At a media event at the state Capitol on Wednesday morning, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, told fellow legislators, government officials and community leaders that it's time to "look in the mirror" and face Tennessee's health problems.

"I don't think members of the General Assembly fully understand nor do they fully appreciate the economic implications of poor health," said Watson, co-chairman of the newly formed bipartisan Tennessee Legislative Wellness Caucus, a coalition of 37 state House and Senate members focused on studying and developing solutions for the health and wellness issues of Tennesseans.

Fueling Watson's comments was a new report that examined the cost of Tennessee's "excess disease burden" - the difference between the state's disease rate and the national rate - of diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. The prevalence of these three diseases in Tennessee is well above national rates and cost the state an extra $5.3 billion that could've been saved if Tennesseans were as healthy as the rest of the country, the report said.

"I'm hoping that people can start to see the dots and connect them - health outcomes matter for the economic prosperity of our state," said Laura Berlind, executive director of the Sycamore Institute, an independent public policy research center commissioned by the Governor's Foundation for Health and Wellness to conduct the study.

Diabetes, hypertension and heart disease are chronic conditions, meaning they require ongoing medical attention, and fall into the category with other diseases such as stroke, cancer, obesity and depression.

These costly conditions are to blame for the bulk of the nation's health care expenditures. And while genetics can increase the risk of developing some chronic diseases, they are by and large preventable.

"In most instances, with proper exercise, good life habits, good nutrition, most of these diseases can be prevented, so the emphasis has to shift toward lifestyle changes," Watson said. "I know this has been talked about for decades, but we have reached the financial point where prevention has to become the key driver of the conversation."

Due to data limitations, which left high-cost diseases such as cancer, stroke and Alzheimer's disease out of the study, Berlind said the report only scratches the surface when it comes to calculating the state's total cost burden of disease.

Smoking, which is linked to numerous chronic conditions and premature death, racked up an estimated $2.7 billion in health care spending for Tennessee in 2009, and the state now ranks eighth highest in the country for smoking rates.

Governor's Foundation CEO Richard Johnson, who presented the highlights of the study, said the state's health can affect the economy in less-obvious ways, such as hindering kids' education and making Tennessee a less-desirable state for businesses.

Watson said the next step is for everyone to come together, digest the material and find ways to improve.

"If we're going to be as prosperous as we think we can be in Tennessee, then we've got to have citizens who are more healthy," he said. "This is a very steep mountain climb."

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.