Central Health faces challenge, change with Brackenridge redevelopment ahead

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Updated June 27 at 6 p.m.

Officials at Central Health have for the past year juggled the departure of their top executive, new faces on the agency’s board of managers and the undertaking of a massive redevelopment of 14.3 acres of land in downtown Austin, where the University Medical Center Brackenridge closed in May.

The taxpayer-funded agency tasked with providing health care to Travis County residents who lack health insurance is now in the process of picking a developer to partner with on the redevelopment, which is expected to occur in phases over the next 15-25 years.

Through its partnership with Seton Healthcare Family and The University of Texas Dell Medical School, the agency is continuing efforts to expand access to health care while improving quality, said Katrina Daniel, who serves as chairwoman of Central Health’s board.

“We’re still moving forward with the re-engineering of the health system,” Daniel said.

Remaking the UMCB campus will be a main focus of Central Health in the coming months, Daniel said.

Central Health officials want to turn the campus into a mixed-use district that would include commercial and residential development with a focus on health care service and research, in part to recoup about $34 million in annual lease payments that came from Seton to operate the former hospital.

As planning moved forward this spring on the redevelopment, a new wrinkle in the process was added in March when Austin City Council approved a study to expand Central Austin’s Capitol View Corridors, the designated sightlines of the Texas Capitol building. That expansion includes the proposed Rosewood Corridor, which would extend through the UMCB campus into East Austin, potentially capping building height on the redevelopment property.

While redevelopment has started to take shape over the past year, Central Health has seen leadership changes. The agency is also considering its fiscal year 2017-18 budget, which would include a property tax revenue increase of 4.5 percent.

In April, the agency’s board of managers selected Mike Geeslin to take over as CEO following the departure of previous CEO Patricia Young Brown at the end of 2016.

Central Health’s board of managers has also experienced some turnover, and a recent round of new appointments from Austin City Council has renewed some long-standing conversation over how board members are picked, a responsibility the council shares with the Travis County Commissioners Court.

A council decision in May to recommend the appointment of Julie Oliver, a division controller with St. David’s HealthCare, raised controversy because St. David’s is a competitor of Seton, which partners with Central Health.

City Council voted 6-5 to approve Oliver’s appointment to the board during a June 15 meeting.

Although Oliver appears qualified for her spot on the board, Daniel said she worries a conflict of interest could be unavoidable for anyone appointed to the Central Health board if they work in a management capacity for a private hospital provider. She said the conflict would exist for any high-level Seton official as well.

“If you work for a company [and]you have a fiduciary duty that’s different from but overlapping the duty you would have as a board member, I don’t know how I would reconcile that,” Daniel said.

District 1 Council Member Ora Houston, who leads the council committee tasked with recommending Central Health appointees, acknowledged during a May 18 City Council meeting that finding the right candidates to serve as board managers can be challenging.

“We’re still moving forward with the re-engineering of the health system.”
—Katrina Daniel,
chairwoman of the Central Health board of managers

The job requires a significant devotion of time and is unpaid.

“We’ve been working very hard and very diligently to try to find people in the community who are willing to serve,” Houston said during the meeting.

Other observers worry that Central Health’s board lacks diversity that reflects the population it serves, a large majority of which identify as Hispanic, said Frank Ortega, a local director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, in comments to City Council on May 18.

“City appointees to the board of managers should be reflective of the population that is served,” Ortega told the council.

The Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin, known as HABLA, raised the same concern during a June 12 news conference.

HABLA co-founder Paul Saldana, who is also a former Austin ISD trustee, said the issue of diversity among local governmental boards and commissions has been an ongoing conversation in Travis County for years.

“There’s been a growing concern about that, and particularly with Central Health,” Saldana said.

Daniel said she understood the concerns regarding the makeup of the board.

“I think it’s a reasonable point. I think having a diverse board is important,” Daniel said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to a property tax revenue increase as a property tax rate increase. 

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