Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks

By John Derewitz

Tarrant County voters broke through the bright lines of the red-versus-blue debate in November to overwhelmingly agree: it’s time to improve mental health and other health services available to the most vulnerable of our local citizens in Tarrant County’s public health system.

Some 82 percent of Tarrant County voters approved an $800 million bond issue to build a new mental and behavioral health hospital, a new hospital tower, a new cancer center, a new surgical center and four regional health centers throughout the county, operated by the Tarrant Hospital District/JPS Health Network. The measure included no tax increases and bonds will be issued over time.

The new mental health center is expected to be built at the John Peter Smith Hospital campus to expand and improve mental and behavioral health services (with a focus on early intervention), prenatal and maternal health services and general care.  Planning is well underway for the expansion, as Chronicle assistant editor John Derewitz learned in this interview with Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks.

Commissioner Brooks, with the passage of the JPS bond issue, what will the result be on the health of the citizens of the Tarrant County?

Success of the bond issue will start a cascade of activities towards improving the health care of citizens in Tarrant County.  The Commissioners Court has been planning, studying and getting citizens involved in the process of crafting this bond issue for the past two years. 

The board of managers brought the proposal to the commissioners; we looked at it and decided that in order to get community buy-in we were going to have to go through some steps to bring the community along to the point where they would know what the need is, know what the proposal is and know that it was not going to raise their taxes. 

So, is JPS is enlarging its footprint in Tarrant County? 

Yes, we plan health centers for the rest of the county.  We are building a new patient bed tower at the main campus on South Main Street.  We’re going to build for what we call continuum of care in your community.  That will take an awful lot of pressure off our emergency room because that’s the most expensive care in the health care system.   Patients can be treated more effectively and more economically in regional health centers than they can be in the main campus’s emergency room. 

A new patient tower for regional medical centers, an outpatient surgery center and tripling the number of mental health beds is critically important because people with behavioral health issues in Tarrant County are also treated in the JPS system.  We can also include specialty care, not just primary care, so that patients will be able to get needed specialist care in these regional health centers.  All of this with a no-tax-increase Bond. 

With infant mortality in Tarrant County being the worst in the nation where is the county was with that problem?

Substandard natal care has for decades has been an intractable problem.  But in the last five to 10 years we’ve been able to bend that curve so that we’re finally making some headway on the infant mortality crisis in our community. 

We initially found that the problem was lack of access to medical care.  So, we decentralized John Peter Smith Hospital and put a series of community clinics around the county where the where the people live. 

After a while though, the mortality rate started to climb back up again. That told us that access to care was not the only issue, so we decided that we needed to get at-risk mothers into prenatal care early in their pregnancies.  When you retain women in prenatal care throughout the term of their pregnancy, they have better a shot at a good birth outcome. 

I think we have finally hit on a system that works.  The bond issue allows us to decentralize services, so that prenatal care is available in the communities where people live, with early and consistent prenatal care and a focus on the health of mothers before they get pregnant.  If women are healthy at the time that they become pregnant, they have a much better chance at birth.   That statistically means the infant mortality rate starts going back down.

So, you sound positive about the path forward for Tarrant County.

I’ve been working on this for over 20 years.   I think that we finally got it right this year.  It is critical in a growing community like ours but it’s difficult to manage that growth in terms of our physical infrastructure.  How it impacts our capital infrastructure.  It’s also difficult to manage it in terms of services to our human infrastructure.  Federal government funding doesn’t pay as much attention to the human infrastructure side and yet citizens need the services, the care, the education to become productive, living, breathing organisms.  It’s got to be a healthy system in order to engender healthy people.  What we need are healthy inputs to create healthy outputs.

For a comprehensive look at the problem/solutions, visit http://www.jpshealthnet.org/