Last year, the JPS Health Network appeared to be moving forward with an $809 million bond package.
There were plans for a new 10-story patient tower and a five-story psychiatric tower.
But when strong opposition arose at four town hall meetings, the hospital district and Tarrant County Commissioners Court chose to hold off on calling an election.
A year later, with county commissioners taking the lead, a much more deliberate approach is being taken toward a bond package.
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It won’t happen this November, and it might not happen in 2017.
“Realistically, I think we’re looking at a two-year process,” Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said.
While some elements of the original bond package could eventually resurface, Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius said the county will now be looking at the entire JPS Health Network and where healthcare is headed in the next 20 to 30 years.
We need a more thorough analysis on how healthcare is going to be delivered in the future.
Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius
“When we went to the public and started showing them this, it became obvious there was a need to concentrate more on the clinics,” Maenius said. “We need a more thorough analysis on how healthcare is going to be delivered in the future.”
Before a bond package is taken to voters, commissioners plan to hire two consultants and form a “blue-ribbon” committee to look at all of those issues.
On Aug. 2, commissioners took the first step by selecting Health Management Associates to study long-range planning and analysis for JPS.
A second consultant is expected to be hired this year to look at JPS facilities at the main south-side campus as well as all the JPS clinics in the county.
The 11-member committee is expected to be formed this year to review the consultants’ work and eventually make its own recommendations. Each county commissioner will appoint two members to the board, and the committee chair will be named by the entire court.
The issues are critical for the JPS Health Network, which provides indigent care to those who have nowhere else to go.
John Peter Smith is Tarrant County’s only public hospital and Level 1 trauma center. More than 6,000 employees work at the hospital campus and more than 40 health centers across the county. JPS also has the county’s only psychiatric emergency center.
“We have all faith and trust that what they’re doing is an open and transparent process and that when this finally goes to the voters it will be thoroughly vetted,” said J.R. Labbe, vice president of communications/community affairs at JPS.
Looking at the entire healthcare picture in Tarrant County is also welcomed by JPS.
“We have to have this community have a conversation about our public healthcare system and the growth that is taxing all of our major institutions,” Labbe said.
The JPS board of managers is creating a JPS Future Fund in the fiscal 2017 budget that will contain about $125 million when it is established. That money would be used to “draw down” the costs of any bond package.
“Should a bond election not be called, we would use those funds for what we believe are the critical building needs going forward,” Labbe said.
County Commissioner Andy Nguyen said there are no foregone conclusions going into this study.
From my perspective, we are no longer focusing on a bond package as the main objective.
Tarrant County Commissioner Andy Nguyen
“From my perspective, we are no longer focusing on a bond package as the main objective,” Nguyen said. “The main issue is to identify the future healthcare needs of this county.”
If commissioners eventually go forward with a bond package, it may look dramatically different than the one proposed last fall.
“The honest truth is we may have to issue a bond but the size of the bond may be smaller, may be more efficient and may be providing more choices to the voters,” Nguyen said.
Driving up costs?
When county commissioners decided to go forward with this plan in March, Commissioner Roy Brooks said he didn’t want to see the consultants or committees used to “obfuscate or to derail” a bond package.
“Waiting is not a good strategy,” Brooks said. “The fact is, waiting is going to drive up the cost of this project. Construction costs are not going to wait on us to make a decision.”
But Brooks said all the commissioners are committed to this process and he believes there will be good plans for JPS. He said it is vital that mental health issues in the county be addressed.
“The part I consider most important is the expansion of mental health services at JPS,” Brooks said. “It is not acceptable to me that the county jail should be the largest provider of mental health services in Tarrant County. For poor people to get their mental health needs met, they should not need to get arrested first.”
Maenius, the county administrator, said private funding such as the JPS Future Fund could help significantly reduce the size of a bond package.
“Whatever the cost of the results of these studies, they can be offset by bringing some cash to the table,” Maenius said. “Then the bond aspect will only cover what’s necessary to fund that gap.”
We don't pull the trigger on bond packages unless we’re absolutely certain.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley
The last JPS bond package was approved in 1985. The county judge said that’s a sign that county officials will be prudent before going ahead with a bond proposal.
“As I’ve said, it’s been 30 years since JPS had a bond package,” Whitley said. “We don’t pull the trigger on bond packages unless we’re absolutely certain.”