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Central Health: A community can’t be affordable unless it’s healthy

This op-ed originally appeared in the Sunday, April 3 edition of the Austin American-Statesman


Our Community is booming, and for many people this is a problem.

A robust economy, skilled workforce, and high quality of life are magnets drawing new employers, developers and tens-of-thousands of people to Travis County and Austin every year. These same factors, however, are escalating the cost of living and pricing out many of the people who give the area its unique appeal.

Affordability, in fact, has become a hot-button topic in Central Texas affecting almost every area of public policy. Central Health—the local public entity entrusted with providing health care to Travis County’s low-income and uninsured residents—is at the forefront of this discussion.

Central Health serves our neighbors who struggle to afford even basic needs. According to the Census Bureau, in 2014 there were 33,583 Travis County families living below the federal poverty level—defined as less than $23,850 in annual income for a family of four. These neighbors include many of our city’s artists, musicians, daycare workers and laborers. Although many in Austin and Travis County are thriving economically, the number of families living below the federal poverty level is projected to increase by almost 13 percent by 2019.

For residents living near or below the poverty line, affordability means prioritizing needs, such as rent before groceries; gas before clothing; and too often, everything else before health care.

trish young brown headshot

Central Health President & CEO Patricia Young Brown

The last point is crucial. Maintaining good health allows us to hold a job, support our families, educate our children, and avoid crippling hospital bills. To underscore the relationship of medical costs and home finances, financial-advice company NerdWallet has reported medical debt as the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S. The same study found that in 2014 nearly 10 million U.S. adults were unable to afford basic necessities such as rent, food and heat due to medical bills. In summary, when our health falters, our livelihoods and futures are jeopardized.

There are also shared costs of an unhealthy community: the economic impact of sick employees missing work; children missing school; and preventable emergency room visits driving up the price of insurance premiums.

Considering these substantial personal and societal costs, health care must be considered a pillar of any local discussion of an “affordability solution”—on par with education, transportation, housing and jobs.

Fortunately, the people of Travis County have taken action to ensure there is a safety net that provides high-quality health care, and offers relief to those struggling to make ends meet. In 2004 residents voted to create the Travis County Healthcare District, now known as Central Health. Each year, property owners in Travis County make an investment in Central Health that creates substantial return to the community in the form of affordable healthcare for those who need it most.

Central Health directly funds health care services to more than 109,000 uninsured and financially struggling patients annually. Central Health also manages the Medical Access Program (MAP)—annually providing primary care, specialty care, hospital care and prescription coverage to more than 40,000 uninsured residents who do not qualify for Medicaid yet cannot afford private insurance. Without these and many other Central Health-funded services, tens-of-thousands of Travis County residents would be left without basic access to health care.

If we are going to maintain Travis County as an inclusive and compassionate place we are proud to live in, it is imperative we continue to support programs and organizations dedicated to assisting our most vulnerable residents. By supporting Central Health, Travis County residents are helping save lives and supporting affordability in our thriving community.

Patricia Young Brown, Central Health President and CEO