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Critics question Central Health transparency ahead of 2017 budget

Representatives of Central Health went before Travis County leaders Tuesday with stories of lives changed by their indigent health services and a presentation on their $240 million 2017 budget proposal.

But skeptics of the health district’s operations questioned whether its services are targeted correctly and where its money goes. District finances should be audited, they argued.

County leaders must sign off on Central Health’s proposed budget and property tax rate. The district’s 2016 funding comprised $160 million in local property taxes, $212 million in federal matches, $169 million via public/private partnerships and $34 million in lease revenue.

Its proposed 2017 tax rate of 11 cents per $100 of property value would mean a $5.59 increase to the average homeowner.

Teresa Perez Wiseley, president of a local League of United Latin American Citizens group, accused Central Health of having “taken its eye off the ball” with regard to specialty care for indigent populations and said she had questions about its finances. Lawyers Fred Lewis and Bob Ozer said they could not get any itemization of health expenditures or performance metrics.

Several people lodged concerns about payments to the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School and the Seton Healthcare Family. They suggested those weren’t tracked closely enough and were affecting overall care.

“People having to wait months and months to see a specialist is horrifying,” said Steve Folberg, a rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel. “I say that as a clergyperson often called on to use my connections to help people get in to see a specialist.”

In a rebuttal, Central Health Board Member Clarke Heidrick called the various accusations incorrect and rooted in misunderstandings. Payments to area hospitals are a matter of previous contracts, but are lower than what critics claimed and not a significant part of the budget, he said.

“There are no nefarious agreements here; there are no behind-the-back payments,” he said.

Central Health owns University Medical Center Brackenridge, which Seton operates, and the entities work together on community care. With regards to specialty care, Heidrick said the district was making progress.

“There’s no secret we have enormous challenges in trying to deal with the specialty care issue,” he said. “We are going to be spending more money on those people that are the poorest and the sickest.”

A few people showed up to support the district. Dale Thiele recounted the day he collapsed with what he thought was a cold but woke up to find he had AIDS, and he described the care he’s received since then at the David Powell Health Center. Representatives of Planned Parenthood and Health Alliance for Austin Musicians touted the services Central Health provides to women and artists.

County leaders made no decisions regarding the proposed budget but were generally supportive of Central Health. Commissioner Margaret Gómez asked whether it was possible to provide financial information in a format easier for the public to understand.

The proposed Central Health allocation will be part of the county’s ongoing budget discussions ahead of a vote next month. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

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