Governor Lee takes Cabinet to rural Tennessee
Gathered in small groups at round tables, the rural county mayors, school superintendents and local chamber leaders understood each other’s plights.
They compared how many hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime their small counties were paying ambulance drivers each year as they lose EMTs to larger, higher-paying departments.
They talked about lacking modern infrastructure.
They commiserated that their hospitals are gone.
And, for hours, they had the governor’s ear.
Gov. Bill Lee, following up on one of his earliest promises in office to put resources into improving conditions in the rural Tennessee, took his Cabinet an hour and a half outside of Nashville on Tuesday for the state’s inaugural “Rural Opportunity Summit,” a gathering of local leaders from 15 distressed counties.
The Cabinet met ahead of the two day conference, likely being the first time the governor’s top officials have ever assembled in rural Perry County, said Brandon Gibson, one of Lee’s senior advisers.
Number of distressed counties ‘just not good enough’
The scenery surrounding the venue, Linden Valley Baptist Conference Center — a church camp with no cellphone service in rural Perry County — was typical of what any of the attendees might drive past on a regular basis.
There are two grocery stores in the county, not counting Dollar General. There is no Walmart.
“We have prosperity in Tennessee,” Lee said. “In a lot of areas, things are going quite well for us in the state, and we’re pleased about that.
“But we have 39 counties in our state that are in the lower 25 percent of joblessness and poverty in America. To me, that’s just not good enough.”
Lee was referring to 24 counties that are at risk for becoming distressed. The distressed county designation means they are among the 10 percent most economically challenged counties in the nation, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
He said he didn’t necessarily buy “academics that say rural America is destined to fail,” and believes there can be a series of “innovating, creative approaches” to economic development, the agriculture industry and embracing technology that change the trajectory for rural Tennessee.
“I actually believe Tennessee has an opportunity to show the country how it can be done,” Lee said. “This is an American problem. It’s not just unique to Tennessee.”
In an interview afterward, Lee echoed a statement he made on the campaign trail: that his yet to be determined plan to solve healthcare access issues in Tennessee would consist of longer term, “20-year solutions.”
Those solutions — “a changing view of what healthcare will look like” — may not immediately be popular, he explained, and could largely rely on telemedicine clinics, such as where patients in rural areas speak remotely with a specialist in Nashville, but are able to have tests performed and analyzed locally.
Lee argued it isn’t financially feasible to keep small hospitals open with full staffs in rural areas that don’t see a high amount of patient traffic.
“You still hear it out there, ‘We can’t do well unless our hospital is open,’” Lee said. That very line had been uttered earlier in the day at the gathering. “Well, that’s all you know, is your hospital and it being either open or closed. But something different from that hospital being open and struggling may be a better solution.”
Lee has been strictly opposed to receiving additional federal funds to expand Medicaid and increase the number of Tennesseans eligible for Tenn-Care. His administration is, however, currently working with the federal government to attempt to receive additional funding through a block grant to make changes to the state’s existing Medicaid program.
Lee’s first executive order was about improving rural Tennessee
Upon taking office in January, Lee’s first executive order was one requiring each of the state’s executive departments to provide recommendations for how they can better serve rural Tennessee, an assignment that was to be completed this summer.
His office declined to release the departments’ reports on rural issues.
The administration said it will take part in an ongoing process of listening to the needs of the distressed counties’ leaders as it begins implementing changes to improve conditions in rural Tennessee, though it’s unclear what those changes might be.
While the governor and his Cabinet are still in the process of listening to stakeholders and have yet to announce a concrete plan to further development in rural Tennessee, the executive order and recent summit demonstrate that rural issues maintain a major priority for Lee.
Former Gov. Bill Haslam created a Rural Task Force, which in 2016 put out recommendations on how to recruit and retain medical professionals, teachers and tech employees in rural areas, as well as improve health.
Lee told the local leaders he wanted them there to play a role in leading the rural opportunity initiative alongside the state.
“If we don’t have a hospital, we can hang it all up,” said one county mayor, stressing to the governor the need to stem the closure of rural hospitals in the state.
Another local leader pointedly asked Lee to use his authority to hold those in state government accountable to act on the needs of rural Tennessee, explaining that they needed his leadership.
Driving as far as six hours from Cocke County, local leaders came from each of the 15 distressed counties.
In addition to Cocke, the distressed counties include Lake, Lauderdale, Hardeman, McNairy, Perry, Jackson, Clay, Grundy, Van Buren, Bledsoe, Fentress, Morgan, Scott and Hancock.
Lee recalled how on the campaign trail in 2017 and 2018, when he and his wife Maria traveled to each of the state’s 95 counties in an RV, Lee began uttering the phrase “what happens in rural Tennessee matters to every Tennessean.”
The successful Williamson County businessman, acknowledging at the summit Tuesday that neither he nor many in his Cabinet could fully grasp what life is like for residents and business owners in distressed counties, said that that phrase took on deeper meeting as he spent more time in distressed areas.
“The more I traveled through rural Tennessee over those two and a half years, the more I realized that that was actually true,” Lee said.
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Natalie Allison, Tennessean
The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org
Published August 23, 2019