Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean visited Johnson City last week to participate in a healthcare summit as he embarks on his bid for the governorship. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
By Dave Ongie
Despite the rancor that has consumed politics on the national level, former Nashville mayor Karl Dean believes he knows what Tennesseans are looking for as they prepare to elect a new governor.
“My sense of it is that the voters want a pragmatic, moderate, commonsense, get-it-done governor, somebody who is going to focus on the issues that matter to them,” Dean said during a visit to the News & Neighbor last week.
Dean was in Johnson City last Wednesday to take part in a health care summit hosted by Healthy Tennessee and the Quillen College of Medicine. Dean, a democrat, is a well-known quantity in Middle Tennessee, where he served two terms as Nashville’s mayor from 2007 through 2015. So as he launches his campaign to become Tennessee’s next governor, Dean is making it a point to introduce himself to voters around the state.
In the republican stronghold of East Tennessee, Dean touted his record as a pro-business moderate during his time in the mayor’s office.
“You run in a non-partisan election,” Dean said of the mayoral election process in Nashville. “You have to get democrats, republicans and independents to vote for you. Then when you run a city, you don’t do it along party lines or ideology. You just try to move the city forward and make it a better place to live.”
For Dean, his time as Nashville’s mayor was a tale of two terms. He took office in September of 2007, just in time to preside over the city during the Great Recession. To make matters worse, a catastrophic flood hit Nashville in 2010, giving Dean another round of tough choices.
“So we had to make some very difficult budget decisions, but I had very clear priorities, which were public education, economic opportunity and public safety,” Dean said. “Everything we did was geared toward trying to move Nashville forward and make a better future.”
The clouds lifted during Dean’s second term, and Nashville enjoyed an economic resurgence as increased tourism led to a flurry of hotel and restaurant construction downtown. Through good times and bad, Dean said he could always count on the private sector to make things go.
“I’m very much pro-business,” he said. “Having been a mayor that managed a city during a deep recession and a flood, I get how important the private sector is to making things work. And having been a mayor who managed a city in a boom, I can tell the difference. It’s more fun to have the boom.”
As Dean begins to look at the state as a whole, he sees healthcare as a key component of continuing Tennessee’s private-sector growth. Beyond the hot-button issue of opioid addiction, Dean believes chronic health problems that plague the state’s citizens could make Tennessee less attractive to businesses looking to locate here.
“We’re not going to get our hands around the cost of healthcare if we’re always looking at this as, ‘We’re not going to treat somebody until they get ill.’ We need to be offering guidance for folks to they can live healthy lives and not become ill,” Dean said. “That’s a major business cost. If we’re in the bottom 10 states when it comes to the health of our citizens, that’s a cost that business will factor in to making their decisions.”
When it comes to the recent merger between Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont that created Ballad Health, Dean said he was impressed with the way government and the private sector worked together to find a solution to a real-world problem.
“They went about it in a very thoughtful, public way with a lot of discussion, and I think arrived at a place where it looks like they’ll get a handle on some of the costs of healthcare, which I think is a good thing,” Dean said. “I think this model may stand sort of on its own, but at least it was a valid effort of trying to solve a problem.”
Dean went on to identify the root of the problem that ultimately led to the merger as inadequate access to healthcare in Tennessee. He pointed to the fact that Tennessee has failed to expand Medicaid as a mitigating factor in hospital closures in the state.
“A lot of this is driven by the fact that we don’t have adequate reimbursement for hospitals because of not doing the Medicaid expansion,” Dean said. “When you look at Tennesee, we’ve lost $3.5 billion or more because we didn’t do the Medicaid expansion, and one of the spillovers of that is that 10 hospitals have closed in our state, which means there are communities that no longer have a hospital, and that makes it more difficult for them to attract and keep people, and certainly to attract business.”