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Commentary: Argument against East Austin view corridor doesn’t add up

As a matter of social equity, Austin City Council Member Ora Houston has offered a proposal to establish Capitol view corridors for residents of East Austin. This proposal has run into the might of the special interests, which stand to reap enormous financial gain through development of the Central Health campus where the Brackenridge Hospital is located.

That development would block the view of the Capitol for one of the corridors that Houston proposes. According to Central Health’s statements, the proposed view corridor would impede the county health district’s plans to redevelop the site of the University Medical Center Brackenridge at 15th and Red River streets. The City Council should evaluate whether for a modest cost Central Health could rework its development plan to allow the view corridor. However, what is striking about all this is the cynicism of Central Health’s argument that redevelopment of that property would provide revenue for Central Health’s indigent health care services.

In reality, Central Health is providing $35 million a year to the Dell Medical School to fund University of Texas faculty and staff positions, not indigent health care services, according to a recent report by HEALTH (Help Ensure Accountable Leadership and Transparency in Health). In addition, Central Health entered into a deal for Seton to privatize the Brackenridge Hospital, an agreement that will cost the poor and taxpayers up to $25 million a year in lost rent. This is taking place when proposed federal cuts for health care for the poor are on the table in Washington.

If Central Health needs additional income, it should cut the giveaway to UT and renegotiate the deal it has struck with Seton. According to a Central Health statement, the county health district says it may lose $1 million a year if it has to maintain the view corridor. That’s against a projected $10 million a year it says it may realize from eventual development on the campus. Both figures are a drop in the bucket compared to the losses associated with the payments to UT and the privatization of the teaching hospital.

In addition, for the campus site that will block the corridor view, Central Health has presented an overlay with four residential towers that have no height or density restrictions and no affordable housing, though Central Health’s mission is to help the poor and one of the most powerful social determinants of health is housing. The need for affordable housing is so great that one UT professor who is now a Central Health board member has supervised a UT study calling in part for affordable housing on the site of the emerging medical district. In this light, Houston introduced a resolution seeking to evaluate the suitability of affordable housing in the city’s recently acquired HealthSouth building near the medical complex.

The historical and sociological context is also important to the equity issue of the view corridor. According to recent scholarship, the emerging medical district is being constructed on land seized through eminent domain in what was known as the Brackenridge Urban Renewal Project. The displacement of small black-owned businesses that resulted occurred at roughly the same time UT was displacing through urban renewal African-Americans from their homes in Blackland to the East.

With shifting demographic trends in Travis County today, over 70 percent of Central Health’s patient base is Latino. The $35 million Central Health is inappropriately diverting to UT would almost double the number of doctor and dental visits provided through CommUnity Care clinics if properly applied to Central Health’s mission to help the poor.

From Mickey Leland’s staunch advocacy of health care rights for the poor while he was in the Texas House to the advocacy of Gonzalo Barrientos for a health care district in Travis County while he was in the Texas Senate, the battles for fundamental fairness in the delivery of health care services for all Texans have taken place under the Capitol dome.

Central Health’s proposed development plans, arising from its own financial mismanagement, would bar low-income minorities from living on its premises in affordable housing while at the same time blocking the view of the Capitol from East Austin, where many of its patients reside.

The council should insist that Central Health get its own financial house in order rather than obstructing the view of the People’s House through ill-advised development on the Brackenridge Campus.

Ozer and Lopez-Aguilar are members ofHelp Ensure Accountable Leadership and Transparency for Health, a consortium of organizations and individuals that advocate for health and health care.

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