Kentucky State Representative | Physician
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Dr. David Watkins had daily talks with patients in his western Kentucky medical practice about the dangers of smoking, diabetes and being overweight.
“I just believe if you can prevent things, you’re better off doing it,” he said.
But in his small town of Henderson, Ky., his reach was fairly narrow. So about eight years ago, the now 69-year-old Watkins ran for his first political office and was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives.
“I just felt like I could brush with a little wider stroke and affect a larger number of people by being in the legislature,” he said.
When people would ask him why he wanted to serve in the legislature, he’d point out that Kentucky is one of the unhealthiest states in the nation. Part of the reason, Watkins believes, is the high smoking rate in the state.
He has set a goal to reduce the number of smokers, especially young people. He’s pushed increasing the cost of cigarettes through taxes to discourage young people from starting to smoke.
“We know once they get addicted to it, it’s extremely hard to get them off of it,” Watkins said.
He’s seen the effects firsthand.
As a physician, he’s seen countless numbers of people who smoked for years.
“They’ve got major health problems, but to get them to stop smoking and get them to let me put them on something or to help them stop smoking is extremely difficult,” Watkins said.
That’s not the only health issue on which Watkins has worked since being elected to the House. Kentucky has a high childhood obesity rate, and Watkins has supported the efforts of another legislator, Addia Wuchner, to increase the amount of exercise children get in school.
Those are smaller pieces of the puzzle for improving the health of Kentuckians. Watkins said every state faces the challenges he sees in the Bluegrass State, and the federal Affordable Care Act may provide answers to some of the problems. But the ACA doesn’t affect some of the bigger problems.
Costs have escalated since Watkins graduated from the University of Louisville Medical School and began practice nearly four decades ago.
For instance, local doctors were on call to staff the emergency rooms of local hospitals.
“We all took a day of call and we’d be in our office seeing patients, then we’d get a call from the emergency room … and we’d have to give them directions,” he said. “A lot of time we’d have to drop what we’re doing in the office and run into the ER.”
Now, most hospitals have full-time emergency room physicians.
“That has its good points; it has its bad points,” said Watkins. “It really has escalated the cost of health care.”
Many uninsured people use emergency rooms as their source of health care, Watkins said, and the Affordable Care Act can help address that rising problem. The act, he said, stresses primary medical homes for people, which may cut down on the use of emergency rooms for routine care.
Watkins likes that the act focuses on preventive care, which he thinks could help cut costs. But to be able to address the growing number of people with insurance coverage, Watkins said the nation needs more providers—more physician’s assistants and nurse practitioners, to begin with—“and, of course, we’re going to have to more efficiently deliver our primary health care.”
He’d also like to see an improvement in how the nation manages chronic diseases. He thinks the medical homes the Affordable Care Act recommends could go a long way to address those issues.
Watkins is a big proponent of the benefits of exercise. He’d like to see recess put back into the school day and stresses that everyone needs 30 to 40 minutes of exercise three to four times a week.
He practices what he preaches.
“Here in the legislature, we do a lot of sitting around,” he said. “Anytime I get a chance, I try to get a little exercise in.”
That’s a message that’s hard to get across. Watkins said the country has not done a good job educating people about living healthy lifestyles, and that needs to change.
“That would have, in the long run, a lot of positive consequences,” he said.
Watkins is vice-chair of the House Health and Welfare Committee and is also a member of the House education and transportation committees.
Before he went into medicine, Watkins earned his master’s degree in education focusing on science from Western Kentucky University.
“Education is an area I have great passion for because I feel like if we’re ever really going to accomplish anything in our state, it’s going to be (by) increasing the education level of our students,” he said.
While he feels strongly about the need for educational advancement, Watkins recognizes that not everyone should follow the same path.
“We need people in a variety of areas. We need them to be as well-trained as possible,” he said.
He passed his love of learning onto his children—his oldest son, Scott, is an internal medicine doctor who practices with him in Henderson, middle son Chris is an obstetrician/gynecologist in Louisville, and youngest son Jonathan is working on a doctorate in math education at the University of Louisville. His wife, Peggy, worked in his medical practice for more than 20 years.
Watkins said he’s learned a lot being a legislator. “I do hope that some of the things we’ve done will make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.
But while he’s proud of what he’s accomplished in office, Watkins believes polarization often holds back more success.
“I think we could accomplish a lot more if we would sit down and talk together a little bit more,” he said.