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Fmr. AARP chief praises SUNY system

March 22, 2010
Urging State University of New York leaders to "think big" in their strategic planning process, William Novelli, also cited SUNY for the role it is playing in advancing geriatric health care.

Novelli, a distinguished professor from the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and former CEO of AARP, was the keynote speaker last Thursday at the last of eight statewide "conversations" SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher has conducted around the state. Information gathered at this conversation are expected to be incorporated into a new strategic plan for the state university system.

Last week's conversation, conducted at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University at Albany, focused on health affairs.

"I'm a guy that likes to be inspired," Novelli said. "I'm especially pleased to be with you as you think and plan and reach a new level of excellence."

He praised the SUNY system for the difference its making in the field of geriatric health and transitional and long-term care, as well as for helping to create a quality workforce that Novelli said he hopes will find jobs and stay in New York.

He spoke about reforming care and treatment at the end of a person's life and about health promotion and disease prevention.

Novelli said, "A vast majority of us die in the hospital alone and experiencing unnecessary discomfort." He said that dying in hospitals comes at an "enormous cost to a system that can't sustain those costs." He explained that 10 percent of all health care expenditures occur during the end of a patient's life and that 30 percent of expenditures from Medicare occur during the same time.

He spoke at length about the rising epidemic of obesity and how important it was to promote healthy lifestyle changes, which wouldn't be easy, and how good health could lead to a sustainable, yet affordable, health care system.

Novelli pointed out two key ways that healthy choices can be successfully promoted. The first dealt with broad environmental change in a media-driven society. The second was to focus on certain individual behaviors by educating people to understand food labels and avoid sugary soft drinks when making choices about what to consume.

He said the current health care system is in trouble and as the week progresses with health reform, "It's like watching an Olympic skier trying to keep his balance at high speed. It's hugely complex, it's political and it's expensive, and this week could be it."

Novelli advocated the expansion of the nurse force, especially at a time when there is a growing shortage of primary care physicians. He commended SUNY for providing a system that allowed students to collaborate with the professional world to learn, especially at research institutions where "so much of the future is created."

Novelli said a good strategic plan required leadership and that SUNY needed to "think big and be bold," because "huge social problems don't lend themselves to small, timid solutions." Vision alone wasn't enough, even though it is necessary, he said.

"Leaders set the direction and take us there," he said. "You don't have to be the man or woman in charge to be the leader. You can lead from the front, the middle or the back of the ranks. Real leadership is the capacity to influence and inspire."

The university system faces constraint and limitation from the governments in Albany and Washington, both of which aren't working well enough, according to Novelli.

Referencing 2008 GOP presidential candidate and Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain, Novelli said, "Remember, it's always darkest before things go completely black. So which are you going to have, brilliant opportunities or a complete black out?"

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