Roy Exum: Why Not Try To Hold Hands?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Jim Coppinger, who is doing a wonderful job as Hamilton County’s mayor, is asking our commissioners for about a half-million dollars to open a health clinic and a chronic-care management program for approximately 1,800 county employees and their dependents. It is a great idea – the city of Chattanooga has already proven that it really does help defray the ever-rising cost of health care.

But what if just one of our nine Hamilton County Commissioners would show up at Wednesday’s appointed hour and, instead of rubber-stamping Jim’s valid request, would “guarantee” a way to provide much better care for even less money now being spent by the taxpayers? That is pretty heady, huh? All it would take would be a dose of courage and an olive branch. Better put, isn’t it about time for city government and county government to start holding hands?

Last year the city of Chattanooga opened a sparkling $4.1 million health and wellness center on East 11th Street, which is in Hamilton County. Before the County Commissioners drop a half-million that doesn’t include build-out costs on the McDaniel Building on N. Highland Park Avenue – which is in the city – is there anyone else who sees the folly of such continuing duplicity?

Health care costs are a heavy line item in both the city and the county budgets, but both would save a bunch of money –  and the employees would benefit as a result of greater efficiency – if we could merge the two separate services into one. I will venture there is not one County Commissioner or City Council member who will not privately agree that the savings would be substantial. 

Here’s how cocksure I am that it will work. I know nothing about either the city or the county programs for chronic care, but I have friends who know all about it and more. What if the city and the county would give me just 20 percent of what I could save the two in health care costs just a year? And what if I in turn would give every penny to Children’s Hospital because it serves every child in both the city and county?

Oh, that might be a stretch … I can be pretty dumb sometimes … but are there any among us who can’t see that Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville are all enjoying and benefitting from some form of “home rule” government that speaks to the efficiency of governments working together instead of apart? The city already has a health care facility and staff in place so why should the county now start inventing the same wheel?

The county plan calls for the Galen medical group to operate their new health center and, since I am aware of Galen’s expertise, this is a wonderful plan. Then again, when Volkswagen built its huge plant here and searched for the best health care solution, Erlanger Hospital set up a clinic at the plant that is what I would dream as the ultimate solution for all of our government workers. You ought to see that free-standing facility!

That said, if we could merge our city and county health care, doesn’t it stand to reason there might be some other areas where we could save money while providing better services? When you look at the city and county police departments and what each requires standing alone, the needs are understandable and easily warranted. But if you add the two operating budgets, any pencil-pusher can see that a sleek, consolidated force would cost the taxpayers a considerable amount less. Egos can be very expensive.

I know I shouldn’t mention the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department in the same sentence – the turf's still too sacred – but I happen to be very proud of both. I think our community is deeply blessed. But I am also such a dreamer that I can envision the blanket we would create without the worry of a city limit sign.

My goodness, just think about what could happen. I can still smell the smoke from that East Ridge apartment fire where the best firefighters and equipment to be found anywhere sat idle less than one mile away and refused to roll. Some say it was because of insurance, or municipality sanctions, but I say put the fire out no matter what it takes! It’s like my man Dr. Seuss taught me, “Sometimes the questions are complicated, but the answer is easy.”

Sooner or later, I believe in my lifetime, we are going to have two or three of our elected leaders challenge our senseless city-county dilemma to the benefit of every human being in our community. I am the first to admit that before that happens some disappointing traits we have as humans must be conquered, but because of cost, efficiency and the natural desire “to do things better” it will happen.

Let’s try it first with health care. Is it too much to ask that our County Commissioners consider talking to their City Council neighbors before we plop down a half-million dollars so we will have two health centers in Chattanooga less than two miles apart instead of one real good one? All it takes is the willingness to hold hands together. Let’s try it.

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