Critics accuse UT medical school of misspending local tax dollars


Highlights

Former state Sen. Barrientos and two lawyers say health care funds are being used for administrative expenses.

UT, Central Health say spending is lawful and boosts health care for poor patients and the broader community.

The University of Texas Dell Medical School has spent millions of dollars on administrative and educational expenses using local tax dollars that are supposed to go only for indigent care, two activists and a former state senator charged Wednesday in remarks before UT’s governing board.

The allegations echo previous complaints, but were delivered Wednesday with a stronger assertion of misspending and more detail. They were leveled by former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin and two local lawyers, Fred Lewis and Bob Ozer.

Regent Steve Hicks, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents’ Finance and Planning Committee, said he took exception to the allegations, noting that Travis County voters agreed in 2012 to raise property taxes so that Central Health, the county’s health care district, can transfer $35 million a year to the Dell school.

Lewis, citing records he obtained from UT under the Texas Public Information Act, said nearly 84 percent of the medical school’s personnel compensation and benefits have been paid for with funds from Central Health. Moreover, he said, about two-thirds of the spending on personnel has gone for dozens of administrative and operational employees as opposed to health care providers.

“Accountants, fundraisers, and administrative assistants do not provide health care,” Lewis said. He called on the UT board to commission a third-party investigation and to stop using Central Health tax dollars unless the money is spent only on care for poor people.

UT and Central Health officials have long defended the legality and benefits of their partnership. The officials say the medical school is permitted to spend Central Health tax dollars not only on direct health care services but also on a variety of operational and administrative expenses that guide and support efforts to advance health care for the community.

“The school strives in everything it does — and especially in its use of public money — to provide a return on the investment of Travis County voters and meet Central Health’s requirements to help mold a model healthy community,” said Clay Johnston, the school’s dean. “The people of Travis County voted to fund a medical school. We are delivering that medical school on time and already with substantial community benefits, and we’re still in the earliest years.”

At a public forum last month at the Carver Branch public library, medical school officials delivered a progress report noting that they have launched or made plans to start about two dozen programs to improve health in the area. Johnston cited the example of an orthopedic pilot program that he said has dramatically reduced waiting times for low-income and uninsured patients needing to see a specialist for such problems as knee and hip pain. For patients in severe pain, the wait to see a specialist has been cut from more than a year to less than a month.

“By helping fund the medical school, we’re giving more people access to quality health care and transforming the way that care is delivered,” said Christie Garbe, Central Health’s vice president and chief strategy officer. “Central Health’s investment in the medical school is legal and appropriate. Travis County commissioners approve Central Health’s annual budget, and last fall an attorney with the county told commissioners the funding arrangement between Central Health and the medical school complies with state law.”



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