After five years of arguing that the Travis County health district’s voter-approved contributions of taxpayer money to the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School are unlawful, activists have finally put the issue into the hands of a Travis County state judge.
Travis County voters agreed in 2012 to raise Central Health’s property taxes to contribute $35 million a year to create and support the medical school. The medical school, in annual reports, has said that most of the taxpayer-contributed funds have gone toward salaries.
Three residents of Del Valle and Dove Springs, represented by attorneys Phil Durst and Fred Lewis, filed suit Wednesday against Central Health, saying such spending is outside the bounds of the agency’s mission of serving the indigent.
“We have asked repeatedly for Central Health to spend its tax dollars according to the law on health care for our county’s most poor,” plaintiff Rebecca Birch, a Del Valle resident, said in a statement. “Neither Central Health’s Board nor the Travis County Commissioners, who are its financial overseers, have listened. This lawsuit was our last option.”
The plaintiffs — Birch, Richard Franklin, III and Esther Govea — are seeking a declaratory judgment in Travis County state District Court that Central Health must spend its funds exclusively on health care for poor people.
They also seek to block Central Health from spending its money on economic development, medical education, nonhealth care activities or health care for people who are not poor.
“The issue in this case is not whether it would be cool or wonderful to have a medical school in Austin,” Durst and Lewis write in the petition. “This suit is necessary because defendants are not complying with Texas law and are expending funds on items unrelated to its statutory authorization of providing health care to our poor and most vulnerable residents.”
Central Health and Dell Medical School have defended the relationship, pointing to voter approval and noting that the school will produce residents and physicians who practice in the community and many of whom will stay in the community.
Central Health issued a statement Wednesday saying the lawsuit’s claims “are nothing new.” The agency also reiterated its long-standing assertion that Central Health’s payments to Dell Medical School are “legal and appropriate.”
“We look forward to finally resolving this issue even if that means doing so in court,” the statement read.
Dr. Clay Johnston, dean of the medical school, echoed the agency in a separate statement.
“We agree with Central Health that our partnership is legal and appropriate, and we look forward to continuing that work to serve all of Travis County and deliver on the vision the taxpayers support,” Johnston said.
Johnston pointed to the opening Tuesday of the Dell Medical School’s Health Transformation Building, which contains four specialty clinics, as examples of work the Dell Medical School is doing in the community. He also pointed to the faculty physicians and medical residents who serve all patient populations in clinic and hospital settings.
Franklin, a Del Valle resident and one of the plaintiffs, said at a press conference Wednesday that his area is severely lacking in health care access.
“The reality is what’s happening in Del Valle and in the area in the east and southeast of Travis County is a travesty,” Franklin said. “This (lawsuit) is the hammer. Hopefully, we’ll get their attention now.”
Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP, said that while the gap between the health of minorities and whites persists, noting lower life expectancy and high infant mortality as examples, Central Health is failing to do its job.
“The problem is (elected officials) are not being held accountable. Today is a major step toward accountability,” Linder said. “And I can assure you that we’re going to fight with every breath we have to ensure poor black and brown and white people get access to health care.”
State Sen. Kirk Watson, who in 2011 named bringing a medical school to Austin as one of his “10 Goals in 10 Years” to improve health in the region, stood behind Central Health and Dell Medical School in a statement Wednesday.
Watson referenced Assistant County Attorney John Hille’s comment during a November 2016 Commissioners Court meeting that Central Health’s “relationship with Dell Medical School is within the requirements of the constitution and the statutes.”
But Hille, reached Wednesday, clarified that his comment was “made with the facts we knew at that time” and were not to be construed as an official legal analysis, which he said the attorney’s office has never been asked to do. He added that he has never reviewed the UT-Central Health affiliation agreement.
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said she welcomed the suit as the closure she feels the community needs on the issue.
“I have said for some time that the legal questions need to be settled, with some finality, and that the best and only forum for doing that is in a court of law,” Eckhardt said. “In this respect, I welcome this suit and pray for a speedy resolution.”