A foundation closely aligned with Gov. Bill Haslam begins its message campaign today to combat the preventable diseases that are crippling and killing Tennesseans.
The "Healthier Tennessee" campaign aims to inspire people to exercise more, eat better and smoke less. The Governor's Foundation for Health and Wellness has $12.7 million from public and private funds for the initiative, which will also promote programs in workplaces, churches and neighborhoods to help people change behaviors.
Over time, the goal is to lower the rates of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, emphysema, stroke and cancers related to tobacco use and obesity. Preventable diseases add up to about a $6 billion yearly tab in Tennessee, said Rick Johnson, president of the Governor's Foundation for Health and Wellness.
The real economic toll could be even more than $6 billion, but it's hard to measure missed opportunities.
"It affects job creation because industry looks at the state and our health rankings along with looking at other factors in deciding whether to locate here," Johnson said. "It drives up absenteeism. It drives down productivity. So it's a health issue and an economic issue, but ultimately it rolls up to being a quality-of-life issue."
The foundation is a newly created nonprofit spawned by Haslam's decision to make health and wellness a priority in his administration, Johnson said. However, the governor is not pushing for Medicaid expansion in Tennessee, which would give uninsured people access to preventive care so they could know whether they have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels.
The foundation received $5 million in tobacco settlement funds, $1.2 million from the governor's office and $6.5 million from private donors, such as corporations and other foundations. The messaging campaign will be funded solely from money collected from private donors, he said.
Michele Johnson, managing attorney for the Tennessee Justice Center, said it's ironic that Haslam would promote a multimillion-dollar health messaging campaign and simultaneously not work toward accepting federal funds that will enable more Tennesseans to receive preventive care and stop hospitals from having to lay off staff.
"The irony of funding a program for health and wellness while effectively rejecting the Medicaid expansion overwhelms," she said.
The federal government will pick up 100 percent of the costs of insuring new people brought onto state Medicaid rolls through 2016 as provided by the Affordable Care Act. It will then phase down to a permanent 90 percent matching rate in 2020. She noted that Republican governors in Arizona, Ohio and other states are expanding Medicaid.
The Healthier Tennessee campaign is similar to the NashVitality campaign launched by the Metro Public Health Department a couple of years ago.
Tracy F. Buck, who was co-coordinator of Nashville's initiative, welcomed the statewide messaging campaign.
"You can never get too much attention focused on health," Buck said.
Healthier Tennessee is launching its website and releasing its first commercial today, but the work entails more than a messaging campaign.
"For shorthand, we call that our air game," Rick Johnson said. "Our ground game is to have more programs that influence people to get more physical activity, eat healthier food in the right portions and not use tobacco."
The work also entails engaging partners, bringing about changes in behavior and measuring outcomes.
The foundation, which has a goal of raising $15 million that will be spent over a three-year span, has 12 employees, including two field directors in West Tennessee and two field directors in East Tennessee.
"We are spending 97 to 98 percent of all our health-care dollars in this country in treatment and cure," Johnson said. "We spend less than 3 percent on anything directly attributable to prevention. But of the disease and health conditions we are treating, 70 percent ... are behavior-based."