By John Schaffner

The Buckhead Coalition began its 20th anniversary on Jan. 30 with a challenge from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Julie Gerberding challenging 150 of Atlanta’s business and political leaders to make health a strategic community and national imperative.

Delivering the keynote speech at the Coalition’s annual luncheon at 103 West, Dr. Gerberding told those attending “health has emerged as a really critical strategic business imperative.”

She said they need to address two questions: First, Why is it that the country that spends the most money on health is 47th in the world’s health statistics? Second, what could we celebrate as a nation on March 18, 2016?

“If you listen to any candidate on any level,” she said, “Everyone is talking about healthcare and healthcare reform and the requirements for changing our healthcare system. I am so respectful of the challenges of Grady Hospital here in our own city and the health challenges that the city is doing an excellent job of facing and addressing,” she continued.

“But the challenges are big and they are grave and we really are in an environment where we are defending but not really accomplishing the goals that we have in mind,” Gerberding said. “Part of that is that healthcare is expensive and part of that is the drive to technology. Part of it is that 47 million people don’t have access to care easily because they lack insurance. Part of it is that our system doesn’t deliver the kind of quality that it could.”

Gerberding explained that the candidates “are even beginning to talk a little bit about prevention. But they are talking about prevention in the doctor’s office. They are missing the importance of health protection at the community level.

“That is why I am talking to you,” Gerberding stated. “Leaders in communities have access to some of the policies, opportunities and some of the messaging and leadership to really make a difference. You have a tremendous opportunity to influence not only the health and productivity and, by the way, bottom line of your businesses by addressing the healthness of your employees, you have a tremendous opportunity to see that spill out into the community.”

She cited as an example that we live in a country where now 70 percent of adults are overweight or obese. “We live in a country where if we don’t change this, children will have shorter life expectancies than you do,” she explained. “The solutions are not just eat less, exercise more. There are things at the community level—things like sidewalks, bike lanes, parks and recreation, policies that don’t put the unhealthy foods in schools, requirements that schools have exercise programs.”

Gerberding told the business and political leaders, “There are so many things that relate to the kind of community policies and collectively add up to an ecology that supports better health.”

She asked, “How come health is not on the chamber’s list of priorities? It is there, but it is usually healthcare delivery,” she said.

“We are missing the boat here in Atlanta, because we have not just the CDC, we have CARE, the Carter Center, the Cancer Foundation, American Arthritis Foundation. We have so much public health capacity that we are actually the crossroads of public health,” Gerberding stated.

As for the answer to her second question—What can happen by March 18, 2016?— the CDC director explained that in exactly 8 years and 59 days from the time John Kennedy went to Congress and said the nation should go to the moon and come back that happened. “That happened because we had leaders that understood that setting a big goal like that was a strategic national imperative for our country—that we were losing the Cold War and would fall behind in space exploration,” she said.

“I would maintain that we are not winning the health race. We are losing the health race,” Gerberding said. “It is a strategic national imperative,” Gerberding stated. “I would challenge you to think about health in every policy you are addressing, in every business that you are promoting. If you are improving Peachtree, then think about how we can improve pedestrian opportunities and bike opportunities as well.

She said we can become the number one healthiest nation. “But we have to commit to that goal and energize people at the community level to recognize it is about the future of our children and the economic productivity, stability and security of our nation.”