Schultz: In Washington, sound bites. In Palm Beach County, solutions

October 21, 2011 | | Print Print

By RANDY SCHULTZ, EDITOR OF THE EDITORIAL PAGE

In Washington, when it comes to issues like the economy and health care, you hear nothing but noise. In Palm Beach County, they’re trying to have productive conversations.
Last week, a collaboration between the Florida Chamber Foundation and the Economic Council of Palm Beach County became official and began to take shape. This week, the Palm Beach County Medical Society will hold its fifth Future of Medicine summit at the county’s convention center.
In both cases, the locals must adjust to whatever comes out of that playpen known as Washington. While politicians argue over repeal of the federal health care law, doctors and others in Palm Beach County are trying to resolve many of the problems the law seeks to address – the lack of electronic patient records, the shrinking number of primary care physicians who help patients manage chronic diseases, the high number of uninsured.
That effort will continue no matter what the Supreme Court decides, because repeal wouldn’t resolve a single problem. As summit chairman Dr. Michael Dennis told The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board, “This is where the buck is.” Or, as the medical society’s CEO, Tenna Wiles, put it, “What can we do here?”
One thing, Dr. Jose Arrascue said, is to “change the culture” to emphasize sharing of information among the county’s 17 hospitals and improved communication with patients. At Florida Atlantic University’s new medical school, for example, students don’t spend the first two years just in classrooms. They start meeting patients almost immediately.
When some of the summit participants visited The Post, we didn’t hear about politics. We heard well-intentioned people trying to decide, say, how the roughly 265,000 uninsured residents of Palm Beach County could get health care without always visiting emergency rooms. We heard Dr. Dennis ask, rhetorically: “Who is all this for? The patient.”
Similarly, while Congress and the White House argue over “jobs” bills and how to help “job creators,” business and civic leaders from Jupiter to Boca Raton and out to the Glades have made Palm Beach County the state’s first urban area to adopt the Florida Chamber Foundation’s Six Pillars approach to economic development.
Among the Six Pillars are “Infrastructure and Growth Leadership” and “Quality of Life and Quality Places” and “Business Climate and Competitiveness.” The shirtsleeve English translation is that Palm Beach County needs more workers whose skills match jobs, fewer unnecessary hassles for new businesses, more amenities and innovation and less green space-gobbling suburban sprawl.
The language does roll on. Each of the pillars has “tactics” for building that pillar. There are 220 tactics, from mentoring high school students to recruiting more venture capital that can finance entrepreneurs. There are strategies, and “champions” – such as civic and business groups – for each strategy. There are metrics to track progress on each pillar.
Consultant-speak aside, this effort has taken two years. It’s starting to make sense, and it just might work. As economic council President Nat Roberts says, “It doesn’t have to get to 100 percent on everything.” The strongest selling point is that in a county that has been about self-interest, this approach is a product of enlightened self-interest. About 350 volunteers helped craft it. They include people whose businesses would benefit from a better economy. But who wouldn’t benefit?
The timetable also is very aggressive: 2015. Given the shock from the real estate collapse, however, aggressive is better. Palm Beach County had a higher percentage of jobs tied to housing/real estate/construction than Broward or Miami-Dade.
It’s tempting to say that they can’t pull it off, especially in a place like Palm Beach County, which has 38 cities and many more political suburbs. Consider, though, that some of the groups pushing Six Pillars put their shoulder to the wheel on ethics reform after three county commissioners went to prison.
Just 18 months after the campaign began to establish an inspector general and an ethics commission, both are in place. Last November, voters placed every city under the new anti-corruption scrutiny, along with county government. Pressure is building for the school district and sheriff’s office to go along.
We call that progress. It happened without talking points. It probably happened because no one was worrying first about being re-elected or raising money from lobbyists. Imagine what could happen in Washington if everyone turned down the volume and got to work.
Randy Schultz is the editor of editorial page of The Palm Beach Post. His email address is schultz@pbpost.com.

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