The reason we’re here, Robert Patricelli told the room full of health care industry leaders, is “to beat Nashville at its own game.”

He wasn’t talking about country music. The home of the Grand Ole Opry has emerged in recent years as a major hub of the health care industry, home to more than 250 health care companies — including national hospital chains — that employ more than 100,000 people in the area. Nashville now describes itself as “the Silicon Valley of health care.”

Learning that, said Patricelli, the chairman and CEO of Women’s Health USA, he and other Connecticut business leaders “got a serious case of cluster envy.”

Robert Patracelli

Robert Patricelli: ”…a serious case of cluster envy.”

They learned that Nashville’s health-care sector had grown in part because of a health care council that had been boosting the industry, providing networking opportunities, mentoring and support.

And so, they decided to copy it. The result: The Connecticut Health Council, which launched Wednesday, to support and promote the industry.

It’s not that the state lacks a health care industry. The sector is responsible for $140 billion a year in revenue and employs more than 200,000 people, said Connecticut Children’s Medical Center President and CEO Martin J. Gavin, the council’s co-chairman. It’s been one of the few reliable sources of economic growth in recent years. And despite the challenges of a field that’s rapidly changing because of economic forces and the federal health reform law, it’s likely to see increased demand from the state’s aging population.

But the industry doesn’t behave like a cluster, like the industry in Nashville does, Patricelli told the crowd at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.

“It’s all about getting the critical mass and learning from each other, supporting each other, buying from each other, investing in each other, enjoying each other, and behaving like a thriving cluster on the verge of a chain reaction,” he said.

To do that, the health council is hosting a series of events with noted speakers, beginning Wednesday with Harvard health policy professor Robert Blendon. The idea is to bring people together  — clinicians, hospital officials, people in insurance, venture capitalists and others in the industry to develop an informal network and promote Connecticut as a “center of health excellence,” said R. Nelson “Oz” Griebel, CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, which founded the council.

The message, in Griebel’s words:

“You want to go to medical school or dental school, you come to Connecticut. You want to be a venture capitalist in the health arena, you come to Connecticut. You want to know about hospital administration, you come to Connecticut. You want to be in the health insurance business, you come to Connecticut. You want to be in research, you come to Connecticut.”

“The fact is, this is an important sector of our economy and our employment,” Griebel added.

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Oz Griebel: ”It’s our job to make sure people know what we have.”

“Do we have as much as New York or L.A. or Houston? No. But that doesn’t mean you don’t compete for quality people and for investment.”

Griebel noted that when state leaders came together to prevent the closure of the Groton submarine base in 2005, “One of the things we heard is, ‘Well, who’s doing that in insurance? Who’s doing that for health care? Who’s doing that for higher ed?’”

Patricelli offered an example of the sort of collaboration the council is aimed at fostering. After Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration convinced the Maine genomic research firm The Jackson Laboratory to build a campus in Farmington (with the help of nearly $300 million in state assistance), Patricelli got to know Jackson’s CEO, Dr. Edison Liu. That led to plans between Patricelli’s company and Jackson to work together on projects in reproductive sciences.

Speaking at the launch Wednesday, Malloy said that “for too long, Connecticut ignored its weaknesses and it ignored its strengths. And we did that in an environment where we were constantly being punished for both.”

He noted that the long-term goal of the council is to grow the state’s economy, and said the state is seeking to build on its $864 million investment in bioscience based at the UConn Health Center, the strengths of Yale, and ability to attract Jackson.

“We want to win some of the competitions that we were always in but that we ignored,” Malloy said.

MetroHartford Alliance has since 2003 been promoting the insurance and financial services industries, and spent close to four years searching for a way to promote health care. For a time, the group considered creating a clinical trials “supersite” that combined the forces of the area’s hospitals, but it didn’t work out.

Health care has been one of the few growth areas of the national economy, and Hartford isn’t alone in seeking to build on its health care sector. So how can the city and state compete with the other places trying to capitalize on an industry that can count just about everyone as a customer?

“There’s a little bit of show business in this,” Griebel said. “We declare ourselves the insurance capital. People used to say we used to be. We’re saying, ‘No, we never gave that up. We are the insurance capital.’”

Ultimately, Griebel said, the industry needs promotion. “If you don’t go out and talk about yourself … If we don’t talk about Hartford, Nashville’s certainly not going to talk about Hartford.”

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Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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