Hospital District Gets an Exam From the Lege

Austin and Travis County lawmakers ready a hospital district for the Legislature -- and then the voters.

Attorney Clarke Heidrick is spearheading the drive for a local hospital district.
Attorney Clarke Heidrick is spearheading the drive for a local hospital district. (Photo By John Anderson)

Legislation for a proposed Travis Co. hospital district is entering the final language-haggling stage before filing. The jury is still out on whether support of the bill will be unanimous among the new and larger crop of Austin-area delegates, but at least, said Clarke Heidrick, an attorney co-directing the community effort with businessman Lowell Lebermann, "No one is telling us they're opposed to it. But there is a lot of interest in seeing the final bill."

That interest runs particularly high in the current political climate of "no new taxes." There is no getting around the T-word here, since the point of a hospital district is to have taxing authority and thus an independent funding base to support the community's needed health care services. As a Republican, Heidrick says he is sympathetic to the party line. But he sees a district as a "good tax" issue that carries a number of benefits. A hospital district would close the health-funding gap between city and county taxpayers -- right now, Austin residents pay a nickel in tax for public health care for every penny paid by other Travis Co. residents. A district would also allow the community to better meet the medical and mental health care needs of those 24% of county residents who are without insurance. And it could ensure quality, timely emergency or trauma care for heart-attack or accident victims, which could be any of us.

At least that's the message district proponents hope to get across, first to legislators and then to voters in November. Leaders of the community steering committee working on the district plan have met with the entire Travis Co. Lege delegation (six reps and two senators) and are now talking with the three legislators -- all Republicans -- who represent Austin citizens in Williamson Co.: Rep. Mike Krusee of Round Rock, whose district includes roughly 11,000 Austin residents, rookie Rep. Dan Gattis of Georgetown, who represents a few Austinites, and Sen. Steve Ogden of College Station, who represents all of Williamson Co.

If hospital district proponents had their druthers, they'd have the whole gang of area legislators carrying the bill. Failing that, Dist. 49 Rep.Elliott Naishtat, a Democrat who chaired the House Committee on Human Services until the Republican sweep, will likely take the lead in the House. "We've been following this issue since Judge [Guy] Herman expressed an interest in forming a district," said Nancy Walker, a legislative aide in Naishtat's office. Herman, the Travis Co. probate judge, initiated action on a district largely out of frustration in trying to find available mental health care facilities for people in need. He knew the county had hit a crisis point when the Austin State Hospital instructed his court to send would-be patients out of town for treatment.

Acknowledging the GOP's goal of not raising taxes, Walker also points to two Republican delegates with firsthand knowledge of the issues. As a former Travis Co. sheriff, Dist. 47 Rep. Terry Keel is all too familiar with emergency and trauma shortfalls and the scarcity of mental health facilities and is said to favor the bill. And Sen. Jeff Wentworth, whose San Antonio-based district includes a portion of South Austin, has introduced legislation on behalf of a hospital district in Bexar Co. At this point, optimism is running fairly high on the bill's passage. And if all goes as planned, the legislation will end up on the local and consent calendar, with no opposition anticipated.

The hard part will be selling the proposition to voters. Travis Co. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, a member of the hospital-district steering committee, says the outcome of this spring's vote on a 5-cent tax increase for Austin Community College should provide some clues on how the hospital district will fare. "The real folks who have to get on board here are the voters," she said, and the ACC election "will be a very interesting dipstick to determine what people are thinking in relation to taxes."

To that end, the steering committee has brought in a pre-election dipstick of its own -- a public polling operation run jointly by Republican pollster Michael Baselice and, on the other end of the political spectrum, John Hildreth, board chair of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. By the time their work is done, the committee should have an idea of how much voters are willing to pay for a public health care system.

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