March 17, 2016
As SXSW Interactive got going last week, I sat down with some big thinkers for a panel entitled Smart City: The Austin Opportunity for Health. One of the neatest things we touted was the unique community tie between Dell Medical School and Travis County, where voters approved a property tax increase in 2012 because they saw value in creating a model healthy community.
Folks in Travis County saw the need for people who can’t afford healthcare to have greater access. They sent a strong message that, among other things, they understand that part of the cost of living for many people in Austin and Central Texas is healthcare, and they want it addressed.
“Lack of affordability” is about so much more than a property tax bill or the cost of housing. It includes things like the cost of medical care. The ability to afford to live in Austin is directly impacted by a person being well enough to work. Just ask someone who can’t work because of a chronic illness such as diabetes. Or ask some mom or dad who misses work and a paycheck because they lost time at work caring for a sick kid.
We’re already seeing dividends from the community investment in healthcare through increased access to neighborhood-based services and a better behavioral health safety net. Last year, about one in 10 Travis County residents received health care services funded by Central Health. That’s a big number of people accessing that version of affordable health care.
We have another exciting opportunity to enhance affordable healthcare through the redevelopment of the 14-acre Central Health property that is currently home to University Medical Center Brackenridge. Since 1839, that site has been essential to providing healthcare to our community and will continue to be even when the Dell Seton Medical Center at The University of Texas, a 21st Century teaching and safety net hospital being built at no taxpayer expense, opens across the street next year and UMCB closes.
Located in the heart of the Innovation Zone we unveiled last week, that property has extraordinary potential.
And YOU own it.
If done right, the beneficiaries of the redevelopment will be us — the taxpayers of Travis County — and the 109,000 people who receive affordable healthcare through Central Health.
Here’s the deal: This highly developable piece of land can put a lot of commercial property on the tax roll to benefit our community. And if maximized, it will give us, the owners, the greatest benefit.
Central Health can plow the proceeds right back into providing affordable healthcare, which is its sole mission. The more money it makes from this asset, the more money it can put into affordable healthcare. This land, and its potential as a revenue source for the public, is a significant asset in potentially addressing income inequality and affordability problems in Austin.
But there are ideas swirling around town that, if they came to fruition, could have the unintended consequence of limiting the options on the Central Health property or simply making it less attractive for investment and decreasing the public proceeds.
Limiting Central Health’s potential revenue will undermine the ability to uphold the agency mission of delivering healthcare for our neighbors who have been uninsured or are underserved. Every decision we make that might impact this land should be viewed through this lens, even if the particular proposal sounds good and, standing alone, is desirable or even something we need.
Ensuring affordable healthcare is key to helping folks thrive economically in Austin.
The voters of Travis County clearly signaled in 2012 that healthcare, including affordable healthcare for many who need it, is a priority in this community. They made clear that it was a greater priority than just the cost of property taxes. We have an obligation to listen to them. If we care about affordability in Austin, we must do this right. We have an obligation to maximize the value of Central Health’s land.