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Central Health questioned about women’s health care services

Central Health officials sought this week to quell concerns about the public agency’s deepening relationship with the Catholic Church-affiliated Seton Healthcare Family as the two put the final touches on agreements to deliver health care services to needy residents of Travis County.

Members of the public at Central Health’s board meeting Wednesday night raised questions about women’s health care services, given the Catholic Church’s restrictions on birth control and sterilization procedures. They also raised questions about transparency and the speed with which the deals are heading to approval.

Similar questions were raised this week by members of Austin City Council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee.

Three deals, including a 25-year master agreement, that spell out the new relationship between Central Health and Seton are now scheduled to be made public May 31, which will give residents five days to read and respond to them before the Central Health board votes June 5. Officials with Seton and Central Health said they are acting quickly because Seton’s parent, St. Louis-based Ascension Health, is slated to vote June 11 to approve Seton’s plans to spend $250 million to build and own a new teaching hospital to replace the public University Medical Center Brackenridge.

Many of the 15 commenters to the board Wednesday night raised concerns about women’s health care services.

“The outline of the agreement appears to ‘protect’ Seton, and the handout provided today clearly states the intent to protect women seeking these services. However, I still have questions about how this will work,” said Lisa McGiffert, who works for Consumers Union but said she was speaking as an Austin resident. 

Central Health officials posted a statement on their website that says those services will be preserved and expanded under the collaborative with Seton. “Central Health will ensure that, through our partners, women will continue to have access to all family planning services whether by medical necessity or by personal choice,” the statement says.

Central Health’s affiliated clinics and other partners provide the full range of women’s reproductive health services except for abortion because of a 2011 state law forbidding that spending, the statement says.

Sterilization procedures and emergency birth control to rape victims are provided by the non-Catholic St. David’s Medical Center and will continue to be, said Patricia Young Brown, president and CEO of Central Health.

Central Health retains the right to make decisions on women’s health and can’t be overruled by Seton, Young Brown said.

Sheila Reynertson, advocacy coordinator at MergerWatch, a New-York based organization that monitors public-private partnerships, said in an interview she hopes the state will review the partnership.

“It deserves careful scrutiny,” she said. “I think this is going way too fast. It sounds like they really want to push it through. It’s a disservice to the community that has considered Brackenridge to be a community asset for so many years.”

Collaborating with Seton is a way to improve the quality of care for needy Travis County residents, Young Brown said. The Community Care Collaborative the two are creating is expected to have access to $435 million in federal and local tax dollars, aided by a property tax increase Travis County voters approved in November.

The collaborative is allowed by law to meet privately, but McGiffert urged that it meet in public.

Central Health officials said their board will approve the collaborative’s budget and a public meeting of the collaborative will be held at least six times a year. The rest will be closed, although the collaborative is required to follow state law that its records be open to public scrutiny.

Young Brown told the council members that Central Health earlier this month received an award from the state comptroller’s for its financial transparency.

Austin resident Cynthia Valadez, speaking on behalf of Citizens for Quality Healthcare in Travis County, said Central Health has not been transparent and that two meetings a month is hardly sufficient for the public to monitor the spending of tax dollars.

In giving an overview of one of the health care services agreements, Central Health officials said Seton will be required to provide the same level of services at the same cost, $56.3 million a year, going forward.

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