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Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Bud Kennedy column

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - 8/1/2018

Aug. 01--FORT WORTH -- Let's talk deals.

County leaders say they can get us $1.2 billion toward better healthcare.

They say it won't cost us a penny more on the tax rate.

Actually, it'll cost us a few dollars more in taxes, because property values go up.

But the plan for expanding the JPS Health Network county healthcare system is really a pretty remarkable deal.

County commissioners took a flawed JPS proposal that would have borrowed $809 million for a new tower and psychiatric hospital, tweaked the plan with help from experts, and now will leverage $1.2 billion in expansion from $800 million in bonds.

After a series of committee and public meetings, commissioners agreed to ask voters Nov. 6 to borrow up to $800 million for:

-- A new psychiatric hospital triple the size of the current facility.

(Right now, in a county of 2.1 million people, our emergency psychiatric hospital can only keep the 96 patients who need help most.)

-- Four new regional medical centers in southwest Arlington near Kennedale; between Saginaw and Keller; near White Settlement; and in far southwest Fort Worth near North Crowley High School. (Another is already planned in Euless.)

-- A new day surgery center so nonemergency patients don't have to wait their turn between emergency cases.

-- An expanded central hospital at 1500 S. Main St.

-- And a renovated cancer clinic at 1450 Eighth Ave., rented from UT Southwestern Moncrief Cancer Center, which moved to a newer location.

"What we're proposing would deliver a lot more than the old proposal," said County Administrator G.K. Maenius, the official who helps the elected Commissioners' Court manage county dollars.

The difference: Commissioners are expecting the hospital district to pitch in $300 million of its own money.

That'd come from revenues, outside sources and federal funding.

(You might not know this, but JPS earns more money on its own than it gets in taxpayer subsidies for indigent care.)

How did commissioners work this deal?

Maenius gave them the credit.

"I don't think it's a big secret that in the first effort, the hospital district was a big driver," he said.

"They didn't have a lot of experience."

Critics quickly found flaws, mostly that the plan overbuilt in central Fort Worth and ignored the need for subsidized healthcare in suburbs.

"That was a big issue," said County Judge Glen Whitley, a Hurst Republican.

"If you were sick and couldn't get to Fort Worth, sometimes you had to call an ambulance. Patients were in much worse condition than if they could go to a closer health center."

Everybody agreed that the new psychiatric hospital was No. 1 on the to-do list.

"People need help, and if they can't get help, they wind up in jail," Whitley said: "Let's get them the help."

He also talked about how an expanded JPS will serve graduate medical students training at the new TCU and UNT Health Science Center School of Medicine opening next year. Southside planners have said they hope the two can share a facility.

"The big message is that JPS is going to play a major role in the delivery of healthcare," Whitley said.

"This is really the public health and hospital system for an entire county."

Commissioner Andy Nguyen, a Grand Prairie Republican, was the only dissenter. He argued for a $750 million bond election instead.

"When it comes to debt, the lesser the better," he said.

That'll be up to voters in November.

Bud Kennedy, 817-390-7538 @BudKennedy

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(c)2018 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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