Writer / Laura Ross
It could have been a swing and a miss. Instead, it was a homerun that ultimately benefited everyone in Kentucky.
In the early 1990s, Ben Chandler was Kentucky’s attorney general. He had already enjoyed robust law and public service careers, bolstered by a family legacy of public service, that included his legendary grandfather, Albert Benjamin (A.B) “Happy” Chandler, who served two terms as Kentucky governor and parts of two terms as a U.S. Senator. The elder Chandler also was famously the second commissioner of baseball, from 1945-1951, helping Jackie Robinson break the baseball color barrier in 1947.
A.B. “Ben” Chandler III, who also shares his grandfather’s passion for baseball, took on America’s other favorite pastime, politics, with relish.
During the 1990s, insurance giants Anthem and Blue Cross/Blue Shield merged. Anthem, a for-profit company, took over all the resources of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, which was a non-profit insurer. In the conversion, Anthem did not account for the value of charitable assets, and Chandler, as Kentucky’s attorney general, sued. The complicated case progressed, and eventually, it was settled for $45 million, which a judge ordered be placed into a foundation.
With that, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky was born in 2001, with a goal to advocate for public policies and programs to help improve the health of people in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Fast forward to 2021, and Ben Chandler, as president and CEO, now leads the organization, which is nestled in a corner of an office complex off Hurstbourne Lane. “I never dreamed that would happen,” Chandler said. “After the lawsuit, I ran for governor, and then served nine years in Congress. Three years after that, in 2016, I was approached to take this job and come full circle. I’m thrilled I did that.”
During Chandler’s time in Congress, he focused on legislation addressing child and elder abuse prevention, air travel safety, veterans’ healthcare and more. He also played a central role in passing a tobacco buyout. Now, as head of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, he feels at home. “The whole notion that I could come and help shepherd an entity that had been a legacy for me was very exciting,” he said. “I can contribute on a day-to-day basis in a meaningful way for my fellow citizens.”
It’s no secret that Kentuckians face numerous health challenges. “The Foundation is trying to make an impact,” he said. “It’s a great job, because day in and day out we try to improve the health of our fellow Kentuckians. There’s nothing more important than our health.”
Rather than giving grants out as a central effort, the Foundation believes advocacy and policy work will ultimately reap the most rewards for Kentucky. “We believe we can accomplish a great deal more by addressing health challenges through good public health policy,” Chandler said.
In 2017, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky set about forming a coalition of more than 225 entities to work on tobacco-related policy change and health education throughout the Commonwealth. Members include the State Chamber of Commerce, the Kentucky Medical Association, the Kentucky Nurses Association, Greater Louisville Inc., the Kentucky Council of Churches, several schools, public health departments and more. Over the next three years, this powerful coalition has led advocacy efforts to increase the state cigarette tax, add an excise tax on e-cigarettes, raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21, and establish a tobacco-free standard for K-12 school campuses.
Chandler is buoyed by the mix of minds in the coalition. “All of these groups agree on our essential agenda of improving the health of Kentuckians. There may be discussions on compromises in the legislature, but in general, that keeps the conversation going and ultimately, supports our citizens,” he said. The Foundation is using the same model in launching the Kentucky Coalition for Healthy Children to advocate for policies and programs that improve children’s health in the school setting.
Whether it’s in the Foundation’s work through these coalitions, with legislators, or on the ground with Kentuckians, the Foundation remains completely nonpartisan. “We don’t care whether you’re a Democrat, Republican or Independent,” said Chandler. “We just care whether people are interested in improving the health of our citizens. If they can agree with us on issues, then we will work with them any way we can.”
Following extensive work to pass a $1 tax on cigarettes, the Kentucky General Assembly eventually passed a fifty-cent tax in 2018. The difference was not the outcome the Foundation wanted, but it was still seen as a win. “From our perspective, we got the largest cigarette tax increase in the history of Kentucky,” said Chandler. “We wanted more, because we thought a $1 or more would encourage many people to either quit smoking, or not start in the first place. But, to still come away with the largest tax increase in Kentucky ever for cigarettes is an accomplishment. That doesn’t happen every day, particularly in a tobacco state.”
The Foundation also advocates for smoke-free indoor air laws in communities across the state. “We’re going community by community,” he said. “I’ve spoken and met with leaders in every one of the 120 counties in this state about the importance of smoke-free laws. Currently, 36.6 percent of the population is protected by these law. This doesn’t happen overnight, but these laws are important so we will keep working.”
For the lifelong Democrat, being the nonpartisan head of the Foundation can have its challenges. “When I was in Congress, I was a dying breed – a moderate. I believe compromise is a good thing and it comes naturally for me to look for areas to find common ground. Disagreements shouldn’t hamper you from working together to accomplish things. If you keep your eye on that ball, you’ve got to conclude that cooperating with people to get good policy passed trumps everything.”
Whether that’s related to healthcare policy, tobacco cessation programs or other issues, Chandler always comes back to the health of Kentuckians. He points out that health is different from healthcare. “I’ve never met a person who wants healthcare if they have good health,” he said.
“Our country has created a rescue system,” he added. “As a nation, we’ve spent a lot of money to rescue people from bad health and provide healthcare, but as a nation, we spend twice as much per capita in the U.S. on healthcare than in any other country, and with poorer outcomes. That’s something we must address. We need to invest more in good health prevention on the front end of the equation.”
Is that attainable? “We believe it’s the right way to go,” said Chandler. “If we invest more of the healthcare dollars in prevention, we’d have higher quality life. We need to build our economy on wellness, instead of on sickness.” And, for Chandler, that begins at home in Kentucky.
Service to his state and country is in Chandler’s blood. “I have truly been blessed. I grew up to believe that public service was a noble thing, and I was lucky enough to be entrusted by the people of this state to be the state auditor, attorney general and a congressman. It was a tremendous opportunity. Now, I’m incredibly fortunate to add the Foundation my resume,” he said.
On many days, Chandler sees his career as a grand slam. “If I’m able to make a difference, I will look back on my career as a legacy,” he said. “To create this Foundation with others, and to have an impact, and to be shepherding it on to do good work for others is what we do. I don’t know what else I could accomplish in public service that would mean more than that.”