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New rules for Central Health don’t satisfy critics

Wednesday, October 18, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court has concluded another chapter in the extended controversy over Central Health, but one of the hospital district’s lead critics says he is not ready to quit.

On Tuesday, the court amended the district’s financial policy framework by which Central Health must operate.

Among other things, the framework’s 13 directives call for an annual audit of the district’s financial statements as well as a third-party performance review conducted at least once every five years that will look at the district’s “budgeting, financial reporting, governance, and management processes.”

The 3-2 vote – Commissioners Brigid Shea and Margaret Gómez voted against it – came after a largely uneventful discussion that marked the anticlimactic end to an issue that has been bedeviling the court and its watchers since August. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has included the item on several agendas since then only to postpone it week after week.

The proposed reform and subsequent controversy were driven largely by attorneys Fred Lewis and Bob Ozer, both of whom have persistently hammered Central Health for not being sufficiently transparent. Both men had attended previous meetings when the item was delayed and participated in contentious discussions with the members of the court.

However, neither man was on hand on Tuesday.

When reached by phone in the afternoon, Lewis panned the final draft of the framework as approved by the court.

“I think it’s a setback for the taxpayers, for accountability and for transparency,” he told the Austin Monitor.

The driving force behind his and Ozer’s activism is Central Health’s annual transfer of $35 million to the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School. That arrangement was born from the 2012 referendum approved by voters that raised the district’s tax rate to fund “improved healthcare in Travis County, including support for a new medical school consistent with the mission of Central Health,” according to the ballot language.

While UT and Central Health maintain that the investment is helping craft a new health care paradigm in the region, Ozer and Lewis argue that Central Health can only spend its money specifically on medical services for the county’s indigent residents. The $105 million the district has transferred so far to help get the medical school off the ground has fallen short of that mandate, they hold.

Furthermore, Lewis pointed out that the new financial policies will not require an audit of exactly where that money went.

“Taking taxpayer money that is intended for the poor’s health care and not accounting for it transparently is something that is wrong and that we will continue to fight until it’s fixed,” he said.

When asked if he would let the matter rest in the wake of the vote, he replied, “Do I strike you as somebody who gives up?”

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