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Critics call foul on medical school’s spending

Thursday, February 9, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The activists who last year hounded Central Health with claims that the hospital district was being less than transparent have now turned their focus on the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, accusing the school of improperly spending millions in taxpayer dollars.

Meanwhile, Dell Medical officials quickly responded on Wednesday afternoon with vociferous denials of the accusations made by attorneys Fred Lewis, Bob Ozer, former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and members of Help Ensure Accountable Leadership and Transparency in Health.

At a press conference in downtown Austin, Lewis accused the school of spending money legally reserved for indigent health care on administrative costs instead.

“The bottom line is that the University of Texas medical school needs to stop spending money that was intended for poor people’s health care,” Lewis said.

In 2012, Travis County voters approved a property tax hike that would allow Central Health to transfer $35 million each year to the new medical school. However, according to Lewis and his allies, state law mandates that all Central Health money must go directly toward fulfilling its charge of providing health care for uninsured residents.

In his report, Lewis claims that of the $105 million Central Health has transferred to the medical school over the past three years, $42 million has gone to administrative costs. The rest, he says, is sitting in accounts “earning interest for the medical school.”

Dell Medical Dean Clay Johnston issued a statement defending the financial arrangement, which he pointed out voters approved in 2012. The money, he said, is helping the school get off the ground and that it is indeed fulfilling Central Health’s prime directive.

“Dell Med is already improving the health of people with low incomes or without insurance while also reducing costs for Travis County taxpayers. It has recruited national leaders to Austin and put them to work transforming Travis County’s health system, especially for the county’s most vulnerable residents,” Johnston said.

At the press conference, Barrientos reported that he had just met with the UT Board of Regents and explained to them that he helped craft the bill that ultimately created Central Health in 2004.

“I told them that it was my intent in passing that legislation that it would be for indigent health care. Period,” Barrientos said. “And that means now. Not tomorrow. Not next month. Not five years from now. But now, when people are hurting.”

The former senator’s entrance into the squabble over the $35 million transfer could put him at odds with the man who replaced him, current state Sen. Kirk Watson. Watson was a prime mover behind the creation of the medical school and has been one of its most outspoken advocates.

Despite the lengthy and lawyerly style of Lewis’ report and allegations made by Ozer that the medical school’s spending of the funds is unconstitutional, Lewis said his coalition is not considering taking any legal action at the moment.

“We’re hoping that our political institutions – the Board of Regents, the Commissioners Court, the City Council – will do the right thing. We’re going to give them the opportunity to do that,” he said, suggesting that one or all of the bodies launch their own independent audits.

Photo courtesy of the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas. 

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