Naked City

Sharing the Hospital District

A weighty matter influencing the birth of a countywide hospital district: Can the city of Austin and Travis Co. get along? The odd couple, which seldom agrees on anything, still has to reach consensus on, among other things, the number of members each would appoint to a district governing board -- assuming a hospital district is approved by the Legislature next session and then by local voters in a November 2003 referendum.

The proposal, currently being worked out by a community steering committee, is designed to improve all aspects of an overburdened health care delivery system by creating a more balanced funding method. Under the current tax structure, for every nickel that city residents pay for public health care at Brackenridge Hospital and community health centers, county residents pay only a penny. Last week, representatives of the steering committee provided progress reports on their efforts to the Travis Co. Commissioners Court and the Austin City Council.

When the subject of a nine-member district board popped up, neither group hedged in voicing its preference. With tongue in cheek, Travis Co. Judge Sam Biscoe recommended, an eight-to-one split, with a county majority. A more likely scenario would be an even four-four split with one consensus appointment. Austin Mayor Gus Garcia said he wouldn't object to a four-four-one proposal, "as long as two of the people that the county appointed live inside the city, because almost 700,000 of the 900,000 [total county population] live within the city."

Before the Nov. 5 election, several steering committee members met with the Travis Co. legislative delegation and found local lawmakers receptive to the proposed hospital district legislation, committee Co-Chair Clarke Heidrick said. He added that he and others intend to meet soon with incoming state Reps. Todd Baxter and Jack Stick. The committee's goal is to have the entire delegation co-sponsor the legislation, which would make it more likely to end up on the local and consent calendar -- a virtual slam-dunk in terms of passage.

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