By Jeff Keeling
When you deal directly with potholes, pill heads and peoples’ education, political leadership can be difficult. Local and regional leaders haven’t the luxury of layers of lesser governments or bureaucracies between themselves and the citizens they are charged to serve. If they do a poor job, act irresponsibly or lack the fortitude to make hard but necessary decisions, the results are readily evident. Schools struggle, social problems such as drug addiction threaten to spin out of control, and health care quality and access suffer, for instance. And in all such cases, a region’s economic competitiveness and business climate suffer, too, stifling the potential for growth and prosperity.
When leaders at higher levels of government sling sideshow rhetoric and fail to seek practical solutions to problems such as the nation’s decaying infrastructure, a tax code in need of sensible reforms and the future insolvency of entitlement programs, the consequences seem to be far less. Witness the abundance of presidential campaign rhetoric that is long on attacking cleverly constructed straw men and offering vague promises backed up more by personal brand appeal than by realistic policy plans.
Fortunately, I have witnessed several examples lately of local and regional leaders in the Tri-Cities discharging their responsibilities with the kind of diligence and thoughtfulness the citizens deserve. As the issues around which they deliberate and act play themselves out, our region’s economy and quality of life should benefit.
In mid-April, members of the Southwest Virginia Health Authority (SVHA) spent hours discussing the proposed “cooperative agreement” that if approved would allow Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System to merge. Five committees are charged with parsing details on how the merger might affect population health, health care access, cost and quality, and competition. Overall, the SVHA will make the call whether or not to deem the systems’ application for a cooperative agreement “complete” and send it to Richmond for approval or denial. SHVA also will make its own recommendation on approval or denial of a major proposal that, quite literally, has segments of the whole nation watching because of its potential impact on antitrust issues.
The application is immensely complicated and it’s long. The group, comprised of already busy people, could already have moved it along without true due diligence just to avoid the hassle. They could have rubber stamped it out of deference or political expedience.
They’re doing nothing of the sort. They met for several hours April 13 – a date on which they could have deemed the application complete – and asked searching, relevant questions about the proposal and how it might affect people and health care facilities in Southwest Virginia. They then peppered Wellmont and MSHA representatives about what they saw as unanswered questions about what might happen to hospitals, employees and uninsured/underinsured patients post-merger. They did their job, considering the SHVA’s mandate to “improve quality of life in the region by enhancing, fostering and creating opportunities that advance health status and provide health-related economic benefits for people of all ages.” They’re representing the interests of their constituents instead of rushing this thing through. Bravo to them.
A week after that experience, East Tennessee State University announced it had state approval to establish an inter-professional research center to focus on prescription drug abuse in the region. The center will build on several years of community-based substance abuse work ETSU has helped lead. Without collaboration among a host of other stakeholders, from law enforcement to local government, ETSU’s efforts would be far less effective. But again, here locally where we work, worship, celebrate and grieve with the people who are impacted by the same stiff challenges we are, these efforts have been focused more on solving problems than on casting blame or accruing personal or political power.
The final example came a week later. I met with Lottie Ryans, late of CenturyLink, now director of workforce initiatives for the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD). The FTDD has played a role in the prescription drug abuse battle mentioned above. Now, the agency that represents eight Northeast Tennessee counties has Ryans running the point on an effort to most effectively align regional educational efforts and practices with the needs of the labor market today, but even more importantly, 10 and 20 years from now. Success, as it does in the two previously mentioned efforts, will require a willingness to abandon personal agendas and put egos aside in favor of adopting best practices – even if someone you might face in the football playoffs came up with one of those practices and you didn’t. The effort is just beginning, but if it stays results-focused, it’s got a shot at helping our region immensely.
The people working on these problems regionally face directly – just as you and I do – the consequences of the challenges remaining unaddressed or ineffectively addressed. Thankfully, they appear to be rising to the challenge. Perhaps our national leaders could take a few cues from them.