Central Health’s board is choosing a new CEO in the coming days. There are two finalists to replace Patricia Young Brown, who stepped down late last year.
In case you aren’t entirely sure what Central Health does or why you should care, here’s a primer:
Pull out your latest property tax bill, and check out the third line down from the top. (If you live in the Austin city limits, it might be the fourth line down.) The line says something like “Travis County Healthcare District.”
That health care district you're paying into every month is Central Health.
“Central Health is the backstop for poor people who do not have health coverage in Travis County,” says Fred Lewis, an attorney who keeps a close eye on the agency.
In 2004, Travis County residents voted by ballot measure to create Central Health as a special taxing district. These taxing districts are local government units designed for a specific purpose.
Lewis says state law outlines how a municipality can create a hospital taxing district. It’s in Chapter 281 of the state Health and Safety Code.
“There’s actually a constitutional amendment that authorizes hospital districts and specifies that their mission is to help the poor,” he says.
Central Health is affiliated with about 24 federally qualified health care clinics around town called Community Care. Those clinics provide direct care to low-income people.
There was another vote before Travis County residents in 2012, says Ted Burton, a Central Health spokesperson. It was called Prop 1.
“That’s when Travis County voters decided to raise their own property taxes to improve the health care delivery system in Travis County,” he says.
That vote led to the creation of the Dell Medical School at UT-Austin. It also opened the door for Seton to open a new hospital, which is set to replace Brackenridge hospital at the end of May.
Burton says the name of the game now is innovation, but that Central Health will also continue to prioritize health care access for the uninsured.
“But we also don’t want to just dump dollars at a broken system,” he says. “So, we want to change the system and transform the system.”
Burton argues that innovation will ensure better care for the county’s poorest residents. He says it could also help prevent disease and cut costs.
That concerns Lewis.
“Their mission is not to create an innovation district,” he argues. “It’s not to establish a medical school. It’s to treat poor people.”
That's just one of the types of questions about the future of Central Health that the new CEO will have to grapple with.