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Conflict of interest questions delay Central Health board appointment

Monday, May 22, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council postponed a decision on appointing a new member to the Central Health Board of Managers amid concerns over diversity and potential conflicts of interest.

The nine-member board of managers oversees the public health authority, which provides a variety of medical services, including two dozen health clinics, aimed at low-income and uninsured people in the area. Four of the members are appointed by Council, four by the Travis County Commissioners Court and one is selected jointly by the two bodies.

On Thursday Council had to fill two vacancies on the board, created by the departure of former board members Rosie Mendoza and Richard Yuen.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Council Member Ora Houston, the chair of the Council Health and Human Services Committee, said that the committee had examined a large number of qualified candidates who had applied for the positions. The committee members came to a consensus, she said, on Maram Museitif and Julie Oliver.

Council unanimously approved the appointment of Museitif, who Houston lauded on the dais for her longtime advocacy on health care issues and ties to the refugee community. Museitif is also an Arabic speaker, noted Houston, who later said in an interview that there is a need on the board for those with a greater understanding of the smaller minority groups that are often overlooked in Austin.

However, a number of speakers expressed anger that neither of the nominees to the board were members of Austin’s largest minority community.

“Over 70 percent of the population served by Central Health is Latino,” said Frank Ortega, the director of District 7 of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “Yet the board only has two Latino/Latina members, both appointed by the Travis County Commissioners.”

“It has to be reflective of the population and it ain’t,” said Gus Pena, an activist who regularly advocates for the poor at Council meetings.

It’s unclear whether the concerns about diversity will impact Council’s decision on Oliver’s appointment. Houston told the Monitor that she understands the frustration expressed by Latino leaders, but said that she felt the two applicants the committee settled on would bring a number of strengths to the board.

Instead, said Houston, Council is waiting to hear more from county legal officials about the conflict of interest questions raised relating to Oliver’s job as a division controller at St. David’s Healthcare, a competitor of Seton Healthcare Family, with which Central Health has an ongoing partnership as part of an integrated health care delivery model.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said that she didn’t believe that working for a competitor necessarily amounted to a conflict of interest, but asked Oliver what her approach to avoiding conflicts would be.

Oliver said she would recuse herself “in instances where St. David’s business interests were on the line” and that she wouldn’t “do things purposefully to harm Seton’s financial interest.”

“I think I can be balanced and measured in reviewing any of the items that Central Health is faced with,” she said. “There are times when you just do the right thing because you have a bigger picture of something. And that for me is the community of Austin.”

Assistant Travis County Attorney Holly Gummert told the Monitor that Central Health’s conflict of interest policy is largely based on state law, which states that a public official who receives either more than $15,000 or more than 10 percent of their annual income from a business interest should not vote on matters that could have a “special economic effect” on that business.

However, determining whether a vote would produce a “special economic effect” is largely left up to the official. That’s what former state Attorney General Dan Morales conceded when nearly 20 years ago he addressed the issue of votes that affect a competitor of a business with which an official has an interest, said Gummert.

“The local public official has to make that determination,” she added.

Oliver also described herself as well-suited to the position due to personal and professional experience in the health care system. She knew what it was like to be in need of health services, having been on Medicaid as a 17-year-old mother as well as being uninsured at another period.

Her desire to serve Central Health springs from her deep belief that “health care is a right,” she said.

At Houston’s suggestion, Council voted to take up Oliver’s appointment again on June 15. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan was the only one to vote against postponing the matter. “I usually vote against postponements when I think the final outcome will not change despite delay,” he later told the Monitor.

Central Health has been under pressure from activists and political leaders to more clearly explain how the $35 million a year that it sends to the Dell Medical School is being used. Houston said she hopes to get more detailed information on the matter in the future and that those appointed to the Central Health board will demand greater financial transparency from the agency and its partners.

“It was imperative that we find people who are willing to ask difficult questions of Central Health,” she said.

“And be able to assure members of our community that they are in fact using the dollars in the way that their mission indicates they are supposed to be.”

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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