Health Care for All ... or Just Some?
Misappropriating funds or marketing?
Central Health critic, attorney Fred Lewis, issued another salvo against the health care district last week, this one concerning the agency's marketing campaign. Citing two Central Health billboards bearing the slogan "Health Care for All," Lewis again charged the district with misappropriating funds intended solely for indigent care and using the money instead to burnish the agency's image. "CH has found a new way to misspend taxpayers' money and not benefit the poor," wrote Lewis in a press release. "It initiated last week a massive TV, radio, social media and billboard campaign to improve its board, staff, and supporters' images. ... It is spending $557,000 on its marketing budget this year, [and] spent $523,000 last year."
Lewis called the two Central Health billboards (as well as related media ads) as "fluff" designed only "to improve the board and staff's reputation with their well-educated, elite friends, not enroll residents in the ACA [Affordable Care Act] or provide public health awareness." He denounced the marketing campaign as a waste of taxpayer funds aimed at "economic development" instead of health care for the poor. Lewis also denounced the agency because, he said, Community Care Collaborative, "a nonprofit set up by CH to operate its Integrated Delivery System, has refused in the last month to produce financial documents, claiming it is not subject to the Public Information Act or Open Meetings Act." He said Central Health is spending millions in public money, "but there is no transparency, no accountability." (Lewis has also sued Central Health over its funding of the UT-Dell Medical School.)
CH spokesman Ted Burton wrote in an email that "Ninety-six percent of Central Health's annual budget goes to health care delivery." He said the media campaign "educates the public about its mission and services to facilitate access to health care by those who need it and informs Travis County residents on how their tax dollars are being used," and is in part a response to directives by Travis County Commissioners (who oversee the agency) to be "more transparent, proactive and clear in our public education efforts." Burton pointed to similar campaigns by other public agencies (Capital Metro or AISD).
Burton said the multimedia and multilingual campaign serves to "direct people to centralhealth.net where they can easily access information about how to get care." One of the two billboards, he said, is located in the 78758 ZIP code, where it reaches a large number of low-income and minority residents. He also defended Central Health support for ACA enrollment (citing $3.5 million for education and outreach since 2014): "Today, thanks to the efforts of Central Health and our many dedicated partners, 68,000 previously uninsured Travis County residents now have health coverage," wrote Burton. "And last year, Central Health served about 144,000 Travis County residents – about 1 in 10 residents."
Burton concluded, "'Health care for all' isn't a change in Central Health's mission, it's a call-to-action for a public education initiative – an aspirational belief that everyone should have access to quality care."