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Maybe rural counties don’t want hospitals

That’s what the evidence says.

The voters of Fayette County have spoken, and they’ve said that they don’t need a hospital in this rural community of 322,000 people, one hour southeast of Austin — or at least not enough to pay for it. In a landslide vote Thursday night, county residents overwhelmingly rejected a proposition to create a taxing district for St. Mark’s Medical Center in La Grange, which would have kept the deeply indebted hospital open for the foreseeable future. As the polls closed, it was clear that the idea of propping up the institution with public money didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Central Texas. The final tally was 1,360 for, 5,600 against.

“I’m very proud of the grassroots effort that stood against the taxes,” Deborah Frank, the chair of Fayette County’s Republican Party and a member of Concerned Taxpayers of Fayette County PAC, told the Observer Friday. Her group swiftly mobilized an opposition campaign against the proposition after it was put on the ballot in April, holding public meetings and distributing yard signs reading “NO NEW TAXES.” Their message: People here are already taxed enough and shouldn’t be forced to bail out a private institution simply because it’s made what they see as bad financial decisions.

Voters apparently took the message to heart.

The resounding loss is expected to push the 65-bed hospital, which is at least $14 million in debt, even closer to financial collapse. And it comes at a time when the headwinds against rural hospitals in Texas are especially strong.

Across the state, roughly 20 rural hospitals have shuttered since 2013 — casualties of low patient volumes, stingy Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates, and the burden of operating in Texas, which has more uninsured people than any other state. Seventy-five more are at risk of closing down.

One point to note: I have no idea where that “rural community of 322,000 people” figure comes from. Fayette County had 24,554 people as of the 2010 Census, and while it’s been growing over the past few decades, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t grown that much since then. I don’t live in La Grange and I don’t know anything about St. Mark’s Medical Center, so maybe it was a fiscally sound decision to not try to prop it up with a taxing district. I do know that if I lived in La Grange and faced the prospect having to travel 20 miles to Smithville or 26 miles the other direction to Columbus to find an emergency room, I’d be a little concerned about the risks to my health going forward. But hey, at least their taxes won’t go up.

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6 Comments

  1. Billk says:

    One year from now in the “Lagrange Daily News,” Republican Chair Deborah Frank died last night on the way to the hospital in Smithville from a heart attack. Ironically, she spearheaded the vote that resulted in the closing of St. Mark’s Medical Center in Lagrange.

  2. Greg Wythe says:

    Story has since been edited to reflect that it is now a community of 25,000.

  3. David Fagan says:

    The proposal allowed up to $.25 per $100 valuation. With the explosion of land values, that can add up quicker for people moving there to escape the taxation of the major cities around them.

  4. Bill Shirley says:

    David, the initial link mentions “proposed tax of 10 cents per $100 home valuation”. That’s $100/year for a $100,000 home. ($250 if your quote is correct). Either way, < $1 a day for a nearby hospital.
    Also, any homeowner over 65 will not see an "explosion of" appraised value.

  5. Leslie says:

    Same thing is happening in the towns near Beaumont Texas. Orange and port Arthur have been shutting down major hospitals so ppl will have to drive 20-40 min to get to a major hospital

  6. David Fagan says:

    It was proposed at $.10, but able to go up to $.25. Even if that particular hospital was supported, it would still be out of reach of many in Fayette county. Lagrange could feel free about supporting it with a local tax if they wanted that, but a county wide medical district sounds far reaching. Bastrop is getting a new hospital, Smithville, then Columbus, are they forgetting the southern border of the county? Flatonia, schulenberg? For a county wide district, there needs to be more of a plan than to save one hospital which is tanking in reviews.

    P.S. I know Bastrop is in a different county, but it still influences the surrounding areas, and it is going to be the best one around, so driving 20 minutes to Bastrop may be better than driving to one that will transport you to Bastrop anyway.