The meetings of a new nonprofit expected to manage more than $100 million a year in taxpayer money will be held in public, Central Health officials said Tuesday.
The decision follows months of questions about the transparency of the nonprofit — a partnership between the public Central Health hospital district and the private Seton Healthcare Family. Earlier this year, Central Health agreed to open some meetings to the public in response to those questions. Now all will be public.
“Things change,” said Christie Garbe, a Central Health vice president and one of five members of the nonprofit’s board.
The decision was discussed during budget talks at Tuesday’s Travis County Commissioners Court meeting after Commissioner Bruce Todd asked how open the nonprofit will be. Commissioners also asked Central Health for details on how it — along with its nonprofit — will spend an additional $60 million in property tax money in the 2014 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
Voters in November agreed to raise the tax rate for health care services from 7.89 cents to 12.9 cents per $100 of assessed property value in 2014 to help finance a medical school, a site for a teaching hospital and health care improvements for needy patients in Travis County. The nonprofit, called the Community Care Collaborative, will manage the new care delivery system aimed at keeping patients healthier and spending taxpayer money more efficiently.
The Central Health staff and its lawyers said earlier this year that the collaborative, which is 51 percent owned by Central Health and 49 percent owned by Seton, is not required by law to hold open meetings, although its records are public. After hearing from Travis County residents seeking more transparency, the Central Health board agreed that the nonprofit would hold at least six public meetings a year. The collaborative’s bylaws were written accordingly.
On Tuesday, Larry Wallace, Central Health’s acting chief, told the commissioners, “All of our meetings are going to be public going forward.”
Issues concerning patient medical information and health care provider competition are among those considered private and will be discussed in closed session, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Knodel said.
Wallace said after the meeting that “we always intended for our meetings to be open.”
Collaborative board member Greg Hartman, a Seton executive, said openness also was a goal of his and he was happy to hear of the decision.
So was Central Health board Chairwoman Rosie Mendoza. “Wow, that’s great,” she said. “We had said that we would like it to be as transparent as possible.”
She said she did not know what prompted the change.
Wanda Garner Cash, assistant director of the journalism school at the University of Texas, said she was pleased and grateful.
“I am hopeful they finally realize that transparency about public health issues is the No. 1 concern among taxpayers,” said Cash, who wrote a critical commentary in the American-Statesman in February about plans for the nonprofit to meet mostly in private. “We want to know how that money is being spent.
“I hope the Travis County commissioners will be vigilant about monitoring the openness of this nonprofit.”
Central Health will set the collaborative’s budget and make its financial information public. The collaborative does not yet have a 2014 budget, and commissioners were not clear on how the tax money will flow between governmental bodies, the collaborative and Seton. County Judge Sam Biscoe asked Central Health to submit a one-page explanation “so we can follow it.”
The American-Statesman also has pressed for details on the flow of tax dollars. Central Health officials said some details are not known, including how UT will receive $35 million a year for its medical school, opening in 2016, and what will be done with the money collected for that purpose before the school opens.
The property tax increase will boost Central Health’s collections from $80 million a year to $140 million and will make up 80 percent of a proposed $176.2 million 2014 budget that it is crafting. The collaborative’s budget is being developed now, too, Garbe said.