Former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler joked at Wednesday’s Bowling Green Rotary Club meeting that he’s happy to be out of the political arena in his new role as president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” Chandler told the Rotarians at Bowling Green Country Club. “I don’t have to go out and try to get people to vote for me, and I don’t have to try to raise money.”
But, based on the issues he’s dealing with through the foundation, Chandler’s divorce from politics isn’t final.
The former two-term Democratic Kentucky attorney general whose political pedigree dates to his grandfather – former Kentucky Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler – may no longer be an elected official, but he’s still very much in the political arena as he tries to fulfill the role of the foundation that was created in 2001.
Chandler said the foundation’s one mission is to “improve the health of people in Kentucky.” Fulfilling that pure-sounding mission, though, requires confronting some tough issues that require action by those who do have to ask for votes.
Calling Kentucky the “cancer capital of the nation,” Chandler cited statistics showing the state lagging behind the rest of the nation in lowering cancer death rates. One way he would like to attack that issue is a nonstarter for many in the state.
“We’ve been very much involved in the smoking issue,” he said. “We’re the cancer capital of the nation, and we also lead the nation in smoking, or we’re right behind West Virginia. If you’re not appalled by that, there’s something wrong with you.
“The good news is, we can actually do something about it. One solution is to raise the cigarette tax. I’m happy to say the legislature bumped it up by 50 cents per pack in the last session. But we’re not finished trying to get it raised higher. If you raise it high enough, people will quit.”
Chandler’s attack on tobacco is an example of what he called a new focus for the foundation.
“We’ve largely been run as a philanthropy,” he said, pointing out that the foundation has given out nearly $28 million in health-related grants since its inception. “The board members have made the decision to shift from philanthropy to public advocacy.”
Another part of that advocacy targets cigarettes in a different way.
“If we were to enact smoke-free laws throughout the state, we’d do a lot to reduce smoking,” he said. “We’re trying to do it community by community. Only five of Kentucky’s 120 counties have comprehensive smoke-free laws.”
In years past, such advocacy would have been seen as heresy in a state once as renowned for its burley tobacco as for its thoroughbred racehorses.
Pointing out that the number of Kentucky tobacco farmers has declined from nearly 60,000 before the 2005 federal tobacco buyout to about 4,500 today, Chandler said: “There has been a dramatic decline in our economic reliance on tobacco.”
Because of that decline, Chandler also expressed his support for Kentucky’s experiment with cultivating industrial hemp. The crop, which has myriad uses ranging from fabric to medicine, has grown slowly since Kentucky’s Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program was launched in 2014, primarily because it’s still on the federal controlled substances list.
“There are a lot of us who think hemp has a really bright future and has the potential to replace tobacco as a cash crop,” Chandler said. “If you can find a crop that can take the place of tobacco, that’s a good thing for the health of the state.”
Chandler said the foundation is also making plans to help implement the Medicaid waiver initiated by Gov. Matt Bevin. The waiver, derailed for now by a U.S. District Court ruling, would require some Medicaid recipients to pay a premium and require some able-bodied adults to either work or do community service.
Chandler said Bevin’s plan could result in as many as 100,000 Kentuckians falling off the Medicaid rolls, reversing the impact of then-Gov. Steve Beshear’s Medicaid expansion.
“Bevin has said you need to have skin in the game,” Chandler said. “You need to have some ownership of your own health care. Theoretically, that’s a good thing. But we’re concerned that it could create barriers that prevent people from getting health care.”
To prevent that, Chandler said the foundation is making plans to help people maintain their coverage.
“The more people you cover, the better the health of the people,” he said. “We hope to provide some support to people who have trouble paying the premium. We want to be a resource to help people navigate the process.
“We’ll look for paid work opportunities and volunteer opportunities to help people meet the requirements. We want people to maintain their coverage.”
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