In front of a crowd of over 300 of North Carolina’s top healthcare executives, former congressman Patrick Kennedy, son of late Sen. Ted Kennedy, opened up about his struggles with a disease facing over 21.5 million Americans today: substance abuse disorder.

He recalled growing up in a household with alcoholic parents where mental health issues were swept under the rug.

“Even in the most liberal households,” Kennedy said, “stigma can be very real.”

He called for an end to the stigma and denial not only in families and communities but in the healthcare system.

“The denial that this is a disease in families and communities translates into denial by insurance companies in the form of denial of reimbursement claims for treatment of those disorders,” he said.

Kennedy expressed outrage at Congress, stating that 24 billion was spent researching HIV/AIDs, but only 500 million was spent researching addiction when addiction affects 40,000 more people each year.

“If Congress cared, they wouldn’t allowed our jails to jam packed with people with addiction and psychological disorders,” he said.

Kennedy believes investments in mental health will pay off across the board.

“Early interventions and social interventions can reduce the costs of your jail systems and prison systems,” he said. “Just ask the Republicans of Miami Dade County, by supporting community housing, they haven’t had to fund a new prison in Miami Dade. Spending on mental health is a value add that leads to overall savings.”

Kennedy related the issue back to education, saying, “What is more fundamental to the education of our young people than the ability to manage stress? That ought to be taught in schools.”

Medical Director of Atrium Health, psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Wyatt, echoed Kennedy’s concerns about the stigma surrounding the disorder and took time to address misinformation in the public.

“We have to change the paradigm,” he said. “We have to understand this is a chronic illness. Treatment works, we just have to be able to recognize it is a brain disease.”

Kennedy expressed hope after speaking with Dr. Rahul Rajkumar, chief medical officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina. Rajkumar was one of many VIP panelists gathered for the event by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. In a panel on healthcare innovation, Rajkumar touted Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina’s new direction as “the most aggressive move towards value based care” and stressed the need to “move away from a system that rewards volume to one that rewards efficiency.”

Rajkumar stated the goal as “trying to design a payment system that rewards the highest ideals of medicine.” He believes that accountable care organizations are the future, explaining that in such a model “[Payers and providers] both have skin in the game. We’re both sharing costs and benefits. We’re both sharing data both ways.”

Mayor Vi Lyles was also in attendance, moderating a panel on “Transformational Leadership” seeking the insights of Novant Health CEO Carl Armato, Atrium Health CEO Gene Woods and Premier Inc. CEO Susan DeVore.

When asked what comes to mind when she thought of transformational leadership, UNC Charlotte alumna DeVore said, “You have to be ready at any moment to change what you are for what you might become.”

The panel was also asked about what change in the healthcare system they would most like to see. Armato responded, “I believe it is in empowering physician leaders, nurse leaders, administrative leaders…it’s not about micromanaging, it’s about turning them loose.” DeVore stated, “I don’t think the government can fix this. I don’t think insurance companies can fix this. I think the only way it can be fixed is from inside the system itself.” Woods expressed excitement at the advancements in technology propelling telemedicine: “Today, [Atrium] will have 14,000 visits happening virtually.”

Lyles concluded the panel by asking the panelists for the words of advice they have to offer “future transformational leaders.” The panelists kept their responses concise. “Courage,” said Carl Armato. “Be Brave,” stated DeVore. “Do the right thing,” capped Woods.