With Kentucky struggling with health issues from lung cancer to opioid addiction, the president and CEO of Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky payed a visit to the Purchase Area early this week to discuss regional wellness. Matt Markgraf speaks with former Democratic Congressman Ben Chandler about tobacco, opioids, health accessibility and politics.
Chandler is a self-described “health ambassador” heading a foundation to promote good health in the state. His agenda is focused on curbing smoking in the Commonwealth. It’s one the foundation’s four initiatives and a response to state smoking statistics. According to the CDC, the state leads the nation in smoking rates and lung cancer. Chandler said fewer people smoke in the Purchase area than any other part of Kentucky but the area’s smoking rate is still above the national average. He said the state’s tobacco culture bears some of the blame.
“Kentucky is a tobacco country from one end of the state to the other,” Chandler said. “You guys are darkfire. They’re burley up in Central Kentucky. Wherever you go, there’s a tobacco culture.”
Chandler said tobacco has been a “cultural icon” in Kentucky for centuries. He said the health damages caused by tobacco far outweighs the economic benefit the region gets from growing the crop. He said the region is also growing a lot less tobacco than it used to.
Smoking impacts other health issues like heart disease and stroke. Chandler said the region is high in deaths linked to these issues. He said smoking was also pointed out as one of the chief reasons for the health disparity between eastern Kentuckians and the rest of Appalachia in a recent study on longevity. He said the tobacco culture is hard to overcome but “we have to do it.”
Chandler also highlighted another growing issue in the state--opioid addiction. He described the epidemic as a result of drug companies pushing the pain relievers.
“It used to be people didn’t get opioids unless they were terminal. The understanding was that they were so addictive that you just don’t give them to people unless there wasn’t really any danger if they were addicted,” Chandler said. “That changed in the nineties at the behest of drug companies mainly and as a result, opioids have been given out on a regular basis.”
Chandler said people who were addicted, particularly in Kentucky, turned to heroin dealers when the drugs were restricted a decade later. More than 1,400 Kentuckians died from overdoses last year according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy’s 2016 Fatality Overdose Report.
Chandler said the epidemic is a complicated issue that no one has found a way to fix. He said recovery programs are expensive and often don’t work.
“I don’t think medicine, law enforcement, government or anybody else who’s concerned about the problem has really found out the answer yet,” he said. “I think we have a lot of work to do to try to figure out how to tackle this very, very complicated problem.”
Chandler said some people may believe marijuana is helpful for medicinal issues like opioid addiction but most people he knows in healthcare are concerned about the other damage the “gateway drug” may cause. He said he doesn’t know of any reliable studies that have fully examined the drug’s effects.
“The jury is still out on that but typically any smoke that you bring into your lungs is generally not good,” he said.
Chandler said the best way to deal with opioids and tobacco is not to get addicted to them in the first place. He said people in the U.S. tend to have a “rescue system” and pay to treat health issues instead of preventing them. He said the country would save money if people were more focused on staying healthy.
“We have to rethink how we spend our money and we have to put more of it on prevention,” Chandler said.
Chandler said the foundation has always believed the more people on health care, the better. He said government-sponsored health insurance could save taxpayers money and combat monopolies. He said taxpayers end up spending “a whole lot more on the backend" when people are not covered by Medicaid or health insurance. He said laws like the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act require hospitals to provide emergency room care whether a person has insurance or not.
“If you let people get sick and they get an acute problem, it’s going to cost you a whole lot more and it’s going to cost the taxpayers a whole lot more,” Chandler said. “That’s what our elected leaders from all parties need to understand.”
He said a government-sponsored option could also help against private insurers that threaten to leave or raise premiums when there is no competition. Chandler said monopolies wouldn’t be an issue if this ‘Public Option’ was included in the Affordable Care Act.
Despite Chandler’s crusade to improve Kentucky health, he said he has no interest to return to politics. Chandler served as a Democratic U.S. congressman, state Attorney General and State Auditor for 21 years. Chandler said he doesn’t have any plans to run for office but wishes politics wasn’t so polarized.
“We don’t have any moderates anymore. We don’t have too many people in the middle. Voters quite frankly kinda punish people. When politicians reached out to the other side they would be punished by their own party,” he said.
Chandler said this happens in both parties and today’s politics is a “toxic situation.” He said he cares deeply about the state and its citizens but added it’s difficult to be in public service today.
Chandler has served as president and CEO of the foundation since 2016. The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky is a nonpartisan foundation and has invested more than 27 million dollars in efforts promoting healthy living in the commonwealth since its formation in 2001.