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Travis County taps Aiken for Central Health board, Lewis as runner-up

The Travis County Commissioners Court at its meeting Tuesday selected its top choices for joint appointee to the Central Health Board of Managers, the runner-up being one of the healthcare organization’s most vocal critics.

Abigail Aiken, an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, was chosen over three other finalists, which included Fred Lewis, an attorney who has been one of the agency’s most vocal critics in recent years; Marina Sifuentes, executive director of the Brookside Women’s Medical Center; and Rudy Colmenero, attorney and CPA. Lewis was chosen as runner-up.

“I feel really strongly that as a professor of public affairs, if you have those skills and you can share them with people in the community, you should do that, and that’s why I would really welcome the opportunity,” Aiken said in her interview Tuesday with commissioners, touting her interdisciplinary background in clinical medicine, public health, demography and public affairs.

The commissioners court and Austin City Council each make four appointments to the board, which oversees Travis County’s hospital district. A ninth appointment — involving the seat currently open — is made jointly by county and city officials. If the Austin City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee also picks Aiken at its Dec. 5 meeting, the selection would go back to the commission and the full council for a final vote.

The open seat was left by William “Kirk” Kuykendall, whose term will expire at the end of December. Board members serve four-year terms with no term limits.

During deliberation, Commissioners Margaret Gómez and Brigid Shea voted in favor of Lewis, but County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Commissioner Daugherty dissented. Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis left before deliberation began and abstained from voting.

Gómez, Shea and Eckhardt later voted to rank Aiken as their top pick, with Lewis as the second choice. Daugherty dissented.

Lewis has railed against Central Health for the $35 million a year it pours into the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School, asserting that the initiative does not directly serve the agency’s core mission of providing indigent care. Lewis has also criticized the agency for what he and others call a lack of transparency.

Central Health officials have long defended the partnership and have recently participated in efforts to reform its financial reporting to Travis County as well as undergo a performance review.

Daugherty said he liked Lewis, but said Lewis’ history of criticism of the organization made him nervous.

Shea argued that there was a value to having someone with a “countervailing point of view.”

“To me, that’s healthy,” she said. “I think that enriches and deepens the discussion.”

But Eckhardt agreed with Daugherty, saying “whether right or wrong,” members of Central Health’s board “have the sense they are under attack.”

“(Lewis) I think rightly, repeatedly, demands that there be proof of how this investment is meeting the mission, and I wholeheartedly agree with that, and I believe the best candidate to bring that to the board is Ms. Aiken,” Eckhardt said. “Because I think Ms. Aiken’s responses to questions show a deep knowledge of how to do exactly that.”

Originally from Ireland, Aiken earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Cambridge, medical doctorate from the University of Cambridge, master’s in public health from Harvard University and doctorate in public policy from the University of Texas at Austin, according to her application.

She also worked as a postdoctoral research associate at the Office of Population Research and a lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton University.

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