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Health district close to decision on whether to seek tax hike

Tuesday, July 31, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Travis County’s Central Health district appears to be nearing definitive action on its portion of funding for a much-ballyhooed new, four-year medical school for the University of Texas at Austin.


According to a statement last week by Central Health Board of Managers Chairperson Rosie Mendoza, a final determination about how to proceed with both a tax election and medical school funding should be “coming to a conclusion that we can share with the public in the near future on or about August the 15th.” 


As part of their deliberations, the board is actively considering placing a tax election on the November general election ballot. If the district proceeds, the additional revenue could be used to complement other funding mechanisms for the medical school.


Created in 2004 when Travis County and the City of Austin transferred responsibility for health care services to the entity, Central Health levies a tax of 7.89 cents per $100 valuation of taxable property value in Travis County.


Local officials hope to use what’s termed a Medicaid 1115 Waiver to help offset – or perhaps even directly pay for – costs associated with the medical school. The waiver is a federal program triggered by the inclusion of all Texas Medicaid programs in the state’s managed-care effort. Under it, local jurisdictions can use qualified regional health expenditures to bring back matching federal money at a rate of $1.40 in U.S. funds for every $1 spent locally.


Whatever mechanisms local officials decide to use in paying for the construction and operation of the planned four-year medical school, costs for the project could be extensive. As In Fact Daily reported in the wake of State Senator Kirk Watson’s announcement about the facility, costs associated with the medical school could be daunting, extending into the billions. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 21, 2011.)


Local dollars qualify for the federal match if Travis health officials can illustrate that they are being used to transform access to health care.


In a June 19 email, Central Health CFO John Stephens touched on this point. “The creation of a medical school here in Travis County would certainly add synergy to our intended transformation of the healthcare delivery system by producing more doctors to provide care to the community,” Stephens wrote. “It would also support our Board’s priorities and our mission – to provide access to health care for the community.”


When asked for more specifics about a potential tax election, Central Health spokesperson Christie Garbe told In Fact Daily that the board wasn’t ready to announce its plans. “The staff and board are in the process of analyzing the opportunities before us to determine the 1115 Waiver funds available within Travis County and our ability and capacity to send up local funds to bring down the match,” Garbe said via email. “These complex financial analyses are not yet completed and thus we have no further details at this time.”


In his June email, Stephens ruled out the use of a bond election to fund the medical school. “(W)e have had no discussion about and do not have any current plans for a bond election,” Stephens wrote.

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