Sen. Durrell Peaden is a Doctor, Lawyer, Leader
Doctor, Lawyer, Leader For 15 years, Florida Sen. Durell Peaden has drawn upon his experiences as a small-town physician to help shape statewide policy on health care By Christine Jordan Sexton Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
Durell Peaden fancies himself an “ol’ country doctor.”
It was his time as a practicing physician, treating patients in the small town of Crestview in Okaloosa County, that helped give Peaden firsthand knowledge of Florida’s health care system. He has used that knowledge while serving in the Florida Legislature for 15 years, letting it guide him as he worked to increase the number of doctors and nurses treating Floridians and working to help fund initiatives to improve access to health care in rural areas. He says caring for patients — sometimes three or four generations of the same family — helped him be a better politician.
“I’d sit there and listen to them,” said the 64-year-old Peaden. “They’d always tell you something. About church, school, the PTA — they’d always tell you something if you just listened.”
Peaden has spent almost 10 years in the Florida Senate, where he has helped steer the state’s $18 billion Medicaid program and crafted substantive health care policy. In that time, he is credited with conceiving the innovative design of the Florida State University College of Medicine, which uses six regional campuses across the state, including one in Pensacola, to teach students about geriatric care, primary care, and the challenges of providing health care in medically underserved areas.
Sixty students have successfully attended the Pensacola regional campus since it was opened in 2003 and another 38 are there now, according to Pensacola campus administrator Jennifer Rine. Fifty-seven students have attended the Tallahassee regional campus since it was opened six years ago and another 28 are enrolled there now. In all, 242 students have graduated from the Florida State University College of Medicine.
Peaden’s most recent efforts resulted in a new branch campus of the Florida A&M University School of Pharmacy in Crestview. The city council agreed to give FAMU title to a 39,200-square-foot historical building downtown, the Alatex. The university will use the building as classroom and laboratory space for health-related educational programs. The goal is to bring health care — and potential research money — to the area, as well as providing students with an interest in becoming pharmacists with a greater ability to remain in state.
A $92,000 abatement project will start in January so the university can occupy the historic building, which once housed a sewing factory. Florida A&M University has committed another $10.2 million to the renovation project.
Peaden has faced just one legislative challenge after switching political parties from Democrat to Republican back in 1997. He made the switch after narrowly defeating Republican insurance agent Don Brown, by 1,099 votes, in the 1996 general election. Brown went on to be elected to the House of Representatives in 2000, when Peaden ran for Senate.
“When I changed (parties) most people told me, ‘You were more of a Republican when you were a Democrat than the Republicans were,’” Peaden said. “Everybody knew me. It was just the label.”
Peaden’s down-home, country doctor image belies his political abilities, says Jan Gorrie, a lobbyist for the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida. The alliance, headquartered in Tallahassee, represents teaching hospitals, children’s facilities and some of the larger public hospitals, including Bay Medical Center in Panama City.
“Couple his political prowess with years of front-line health care delivery in rural Florida, and you have a great and dangerously knowledgeable advocate for things like graduate medical education, medical schools, dental and medical health care access and innovative health care financing,” Gorrie said. “And Dr. Peaden never fails to see the human side of political decisions or the process.”
That’s no surprise to Maereatha “Miss” Coleman, who worked with Peaden throughout his medical career in Crestview, from his time as an upstart physician who often worked on call at the hospital until the day his medical practice closed in 1999.
Peaden, or his wife, Nancy, calls Coleman regularly to check in on her although it’s been a decade since she’s worked for him. It’s that caring touch that is still missed by the locals, she said.
Coleman remembers working with Peaden back in 1977 at Okaloosa Memorial Hospital, when he diagnosed a 14-year-old girl who had just had a baby as suffering from an amniotic embolism, a rare but potentially fatal condition. Coleman said she and Peaden stayed with the girl throughout the night until she rounded the corner.
“He had the best bedside manner I have ever seen in a doctor,” Coleman said. “And I worked with a lot of them.”
Peaden has been married to his wife, Nancy, since 1988. He has three children, Durell III, Tyler and Taylen from a previous marriage.
Crestview surgeon Dennis Stewart interned with Peaden when Stewart was doing his residency at the University of Alabama. It was then that Stewart first noted what he calls Peaden’s “phenomenal recall” of people.
“He has the most amazing memory. Without even looking at a (medical) chart, he can remember someone’s parents or grandparents and who he delivered. It’s uncanny,” said Stewart, who returned to Crestview after graduating and was the surgeon to whom Peaden referred his patients.
Peaden credits his memory with helping him graduate from law school while working full time as a doctor. He attended the Jones School of Law at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., and graduated with his law degree when he was 42 years old.
An avid history buff, Peaden said being a politician is in his genes. He has great-cousins dating back to the pre-Civil War period, as well as in the late 1880s, who served in the Legislature. A cousin, John Wilkinson Jr., was a member of the Legislature that created the Florida Department of Health in 1889. Peaden’s grandfather, John W. Kennedy, chaired the Okaloosa County Commission from 1940 through 1942.
“I grew up in an atmosphere where politics was the conversation,”said Peaden, who was born in DeFuniak Springs. “It wasn’t baseball or football, it was politics. All the things you learn in graduate school about political science is second nature in Okaloosa County.”
Health care is in his genes, too, though. And Peaden, who is term-limited out of the Legislature this year, promises to remain involved.
“I’ll have an interest in these health care issues whether I’m elected or not,” he said. “I want to make Florida a better place.”
PEADEN’S PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT
“Bringing the issue of medical education to (people’s attention). We passed a bill in the Legislature a few years ago that required doctors, before they got a license, to answer questions about where they practice, how much they practice, and how long they were going to practice. Today, it is verified that we are 8,500 doctors short in Florida to take care of all these millions of people.”
HIS GREATEST DISAPPOINTMENT
“We only have two dental schools in Florida, and I wish we would have been able to move the bill that would let FAMU have a dental school like they want. It sure is a good model. (It’s) not in Tallahassee, but out here in the hinterlands, the Big Bend area. And then the health departments all across the state can help, from Pensacola down to Jacksonville, and train those kids for a couple of years. Then we put them back in the country, where they came from, and hopefully they will give back.”