I had the pleasure of attending the Milken Institute’s Public Health Summit this week in Washington, D.C.

The discussion had a global focus. Yet many speakers sounded like they could easily be discussing West Virginia. They celebrated the role of public health in extending the life expectancy from 45 to 78 years over the last 50 years – a benefit of the efforts many have made in creating clean water, improving safety in the food supply chains, immunizations, antibiotics, etc.

Today’s issues in public health, worldwide and in West Virginia, are focused on with chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. In addition, panels at the conference took on the issues of rural access for healthcare delivery and the impact of behavioral health on outcomes.

I thought a lot about our state.

As several Milken speakers noted, the basic needs of many communities that are struggling is economic development and education – issues we have discussed as part of the solution set for West Virginia’s health.

Tom Frieden

Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discussed the long-term impact of New York City’s efforts to reduce tobacco use. (As the city’s health commissioner from 2002-09, he directed the effort.)  By raising the tax on cigarettes, banning smoking in restaurants and bars and promoting anti-tobacco campaigns, he reduced the incidence of smoking from 21% to 14% and gained $250 billion dollars.

The gain was both from tax revenue, but also from the savings on health care spending.

Remarkable and progressive.

Dr. Frieden realized that by promoting a healthier environment and populace, he was sending a message that health was NYC’s brand. The message was also financial: he was changing the city’s budget and generating investable money by saving money that would otherwise be spent caring for an unhealthy population.

Except for his current work fighting the Ebola and Zika viruses, he says this is his most important contribution to public health.

Dan McGinn

After the conference, I sat down with a West Virginian who thinks a lot about these issues, Dan McGinn. The Nitro, W.Va., native wrote an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail last fall that has influenced a lot of my thinking about our state’s path forward.

I loved my time with him – he’s a person who dares to be different and dares to tackle issues that others won’t.

I agree with him that West Virginia needs to rebrand itself and may be able to do this by tackling important problems that we share with the world. I’d like to see someone at a future Milken summit telling world leaders how West Virginia solved a problem.

He suggested we approach opioid abuse and obesity. We are taking his advice and working on both.

He also said that it is time to call our sons and daughters home to help.

After my two experiences, I continue to see a bright path for all of us, from the valley we are in now to the top of the mountain.

We need to create the solutions and not wait for someone to rescue us.

Let’s start to do the smart things that will free up the large amount of money we spend on health care in West Virginia. We’re talking about more than one of every four dollars in our state economy – far above the 17.8% spent on health across the U.S.  

To realize improved lives for our citizens, we need to be smart about how we approach the next steps:

Reducing smoking and drug abuse, changing our diets, staying grateful and investing in education and jobs. Creating community and connectedness with all of our citizens.

With hope, commitment and an eye to a better future – to the American dream.  Together.