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Galveston County, former health care manager at odds over big money

LEAGUE CITY

Galveston County commissioners on Friday gave their attorneys the go-ahead to sue a former health care administrator in attempt to force the company to turn over documents related to the handling of large sums of public money.

A company owner, however, said the county had made unreasonable demands for documents, had rejected a meeting and had resorted to bullying in effort to avoid paying money it owes.

Commissioners voted 3-0 to authorize attorneys to file a lawsuit against Boon-Chapman Benefit Administrators, which until 2020 oversaw the county’s employee health care plan and medical services at the county jail. Commissioners Stephen Holmes and Ken Clark were absent.

The vote stemmed from an ongoing dispute over hundreds of thousands of dollars the county paid the company and questions about how the money ultimately was used, county officials said.

“We want transparency,” County Judge Mark Henry said. “We want to know what they paid, who they paid, what claim they were paying. We want to know all this and they have not provided it to us.”

Kevin Chapman, one of Boon-Chapman’s owners, said Friday the company had attempted to respond to the county’s requests. Boon-Chapman executives, however, didn’t respond to a phone call made Friday afternoon after the commissioners’ vote.

The company received a demand for documents Dec. 20 with a Dec. 31 deadline, Chapman said. The request was “entirely unreasonable,” he said. The company had asked the county to schedule a meeting and give it at least a month to respond, Chapman said.

“We’ve had the distinct honor of serving the county since 2007 in multiple capacities and it’s a shame to see it end like this,” Chapman said. “We fully expected to be given the opportunity to meet with them.”

Before the demand letter, Boon-Chapman had been working with the county auditor’s office to provide information about its accounts, Chapman said.

The county’s legal threats were an attempt to intimidate its way out of a payment it owes, he said.

“They don’t want to pay a bill that we sent them,” Chapman said.

The county didn’t release detailed information about its complaint Friday. In at least one instance, however, a local health care provider had contacted the county seeking about $600,000 in payments, Henry said.

The county already had paid that money to Boon-Chapman, which was supposed to have paid the health care provider, Henry said.

That payment was among hundreds of issues the county needed documentation from Boon-Chapman to sort out, Henry said.

The county had drafted a lawsuit and was prepared to file it Friday but delayed because Boon-Chapman turned over some documents Thursday evening, Henry said.

Henry said he didn’t believe the documents satisfied all the county’s requests and he anticipated a filing would be made when courts open Tuesday.

“It’s not even close to what we asked for, but we need a chance to review it,” Henry said.

The county in August 2020 switched from Boon-Chapman to BlueCross BlueShield as its third-party health care administrator. The same month, the county also stopped using Boon-Chapman as the administrator for health care in the county jail.

Using Boon-Chapman had cost the county $18.6 million a year, according to a consulting firm the county had hired. Switching to a BlueCross BlueShield plan administered by the Texas Association for Counties saved the county between $1.7 million and $3.2 million, according to a presentation by the consulting firm.

Friday’s vote came days after commissioners accepted a letter from Boon-Chapman announcing the company would no longer administer the county’s indigent health care program.

Henry said Tuesday there was potential litigation related to the indigent health care program. But officials on Friday clarified the conflict was over the employee and jail health care programs.

“This is about employee health care,” Henry said. “We had issues with the jail medical care as well. We haven’t gotten to indigent care yet because that’s a brand new issue that they just dropped on us in the last couple of weeks.”


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CenterPoint upgrading Galveston equipment to improve reliability
  • Updated

GALVESTON

Reliability, or lack thereof, has become a sore spot among many island consumers since the winter freeze knocked out power to millions of people across Texas. CenterPoint Energy, which manages the wires, poles and other delivery equipment in Galveston, has been upgrading materials in hopes of improving reliability and reducing unplanned outages.

After the return of an area supervisor who once oversaw the region, some local officials are hopeful that outages will be reduced and that reliability will be enhanced.

Keith Gray had overseen the Galveston County region before and during Hurricane Ike in 2008, he said. After years assigned to other duties at CenterPoint, he returned to the role of overseeing coastal communities in November, said Gray, service director for Galveston and Brazoria counties.

Gray had worked with many island officials during his previous time overseeing the coast, he said.

“They were happy to have a familiar face that understands the island; not that we didn’t before, but maybe we didn’t communicate it the way they were used to,” Gray said.

CenterPoint covers both transmission of high-voltage power onto the island and distribution of power from substations to homes and businesses.

The company is always working to prevent outages, he said.

“My goal is to continue the reliability program we have been doing and ensuring we’re doing the right targets,” Gray said.

COASTAL CONDITIONS

What’s unusual about the coast, and especially areas near the beach, is the saltwater contamination that can degrade equipment quickly, he said.

Every environment has different conditions and challenges to account for, so part of protecting the system involves understanding the conditions specific to the Gulf Coast, Gray said.

In Galveston, the company has spent the past few months changing out porcelain insulators for polymer and using fiberglass, instead of wood or steel, for the arms that hold up the insulators, he said.

Insulators are supports that attach electrical distribution or transmission lines to utility poles or transmission towers.

Those materials have a higher insulation rating and tend to stand up better to the saltwater contamination common on the island, Gray said. Now many of those poles have the new materials, he said.

It’s just a better design and materials for the island environment, Gray said.

The company also installs control boxes about 8 feet off the ground to avoid high water, he said.

It was good news to City Manager Brian Maxwell that Gray was back in town, he said.

“It’s improved so much already with Keith being here,” Maxwell said. “It’s fantastic. He communicates with us.”

Gray already has overseen several rehabilitation jobs on areas that have had problems, he said. CenterPoint has continuously been doing upgrades, but now Maxwell feels like the communication is better, he said. Gray understands Galveston’s needs, he said.

“Our needs are 1,000 percent different than inland areas and their needs are 1,000 percent different than ours are,” Maxwell said.

WEST END WORK

The company has been focusing on equipment on the West End as well, spokeswoman Alejandra Diaz said.

CenterPoint last year began upgrading its transmission lines that run along Stewart Road, she said.

It’s good news for West Enders, District 6 Councilwoman Marie Robb said.

“I’ve been on the West End for 25 years,” Robb said. “When I first moved here, you had your power out at least five times a week. We’ve come a long way. Farther west definitely needs to be advanced, and they are working on it.”

Outages haven’t seemed to be the same kind of problem they were in the past, said Michael Hutson, owner of West End Gym, 13680 FM 3005.

“We haven’t had that problem so much,” Hutson said. “Even with the bad winds we had a week ago, we didn’t lose power from that.”

People can still use the gym when power is out, but they can’t watch TV or use cardio equipment, which requires electricity, he said.

In the past, Hummel’s General Store & Deli, 13722 FM 3005, has had to close and lost inventory because of outages, owner Patti Hummel said.

“We’ve become totally reliant on having energy for running the cash registers,” Hummel said.

She’s lost equipment that’s shorted out with the power before, which is expensive and inconvenient, she said.

“Power outages in Galveston have always been a plague,” Hummel said.

Hummel was glad to hear crews were working to improve the system.

“I don’t know of anything in Galveston that’s weather-proof,” Hummel said.

The Stewart Road transmission upgrades are meant to improve resiliency during hurricane-like conditions, Diaz said.

“This work involves replacing the existing wood poles, insulators and conductors with new steel poles, polymer insulators and conductors,” Diaz said.

The company expects to continue the upgrades out to the farther west parts of the island in 2023, she said.

ONGOING WORK

CenterPoint Energy constantly is working on upgrading material and equipment, especially as the larger Galveston County area grows, Diaz said.

The company also doesn’t prioritize one area of the island or the county over another for upgrades and instead bases repairs on the condition of equipment, Gray said. The only prioritization the company makes is to address repairs for grids that power critical infrastructure, Gray said.

“If I have two things equal and in one, there’s a hospital, I’m going to do the hospital,” Gray said.

Despite not having power to distribute during the February winter freeze, CenterPoint’s equipment actually held up well, Diaz said.

“The winter storm, it was really bad but it really helped people understand how the grid works and who was responsible for what,” Diaz said.

The freeze plunged hundreds of thousands of county residents and millions of Texans into frigid darkness for days across the state. Residents huddled in their homes and some died from cold, carbon monoxide poisoning or other weather-related causes.

But the improvements CenterPoint is working on weren’t prompted by the freeze, Gray said.

“I’m just seeing areas that are coming to the end of life and I want to address them,” Gray said.


Free
Charges dropped against former Dickinson city administrator

DICKINSON

Child abuse charges against Dickinson’s former city administrator and his former girlfriend were dismissed Friday after prosecutors told a judge they had insufficient evidence to proceed with a trial.

Christopher Heard and Maria Teresa Gonzalez-Collis had been charged with injury to a child with intent to cause bodily injury in November 2020. The charges were dismissed Friday.

The charges stemmed from allegations that Heard and Gonzalez-Collis had tried to force-feed two teenage girls a meal Heard had prepared and they had refused to eat, and then got into a physical altercation with the girls.

Heard on Friday said he was relieved by the dismissal and by the chance to start a life out of the public eye.

“It has provided some challenges for me over the past year,” Heard said. “I’m very relieved the case has been dismissed and now I can figure out next steps.”

Heard’s attorney, Dan Krieger, said he thought the charges stemmed from a rush to judgment by authorities.

“I think that a combination of a lack of evidence and other factors in the investigation led to the dismissal of the case,” Krieger said. “I think there were some credibility issues on the front end of the case that should have been looked at little more closely.”

The charges were detrimental to Heard’s career, Krieger said.

School officials had reported the allegations to police.

Changes in witness statements prompted prosecutors to move for a dismissal, the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement.

“We determined that a reasonable doubt existed as to the defendant’s guilt because there were substantial changes in witness statements after the case was filed,” said Kevin Petroff, first assistant district attorney. “Therefore, the charge was dismissed because there was insufficient evidence to proceed to trial.”

Gonzalez-Collis’ attorney didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon.

Heard and Gonzalez-Collis were arrested in November 2020, about a month after the initial complaint. They were indicted by a grand jury in May 2021. Court records show a jury trial was pending in the 405th District Court. Prosecutors on Friday submitted a request to have the charges dismissed.

Heard’s arrest led to him being fired as Dickinson’s city administrator. A split city council in December 2020 voted to dismiss Heard and pay him $20,000 in severance.


Free
Galveston County to expand free COVID-testing program

GALVESTON

Galveston County will open a mass COVID-19 testing site next week as demand continues to climb to its highest point of the pandemic.

The drive-through testing site will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday at the Galveston County Health District, 9850 Emmett F. Lowry Expressway.

Appointments are required for the tests, which will be administered and processed through the University of Texas Medical Branch.

The drive-through site will have the ability to test up to 500 people a day, health district spokeswoman Ashley Tompkins said.

The district is encouraging Galveston County residents who feel sick or who have had exposure to someone else positive for COVID-19 to be tested so they can treat and isolate themselves and have some peace of mind, Tomkins said.

“Many of the respiratory viruses that we’re seeing right now — COVID-19, the flu, cold — have similar symptoms,” Tompkins said. “It’s best to not guess. Get tested. You can get the treatment you need and keep yourself, family and community safe.”

The tests are free but limited to Galveston County residents. People with insurance are covered through their plans. Galveston County will pay for the tests for the uninsured. The county since 2020 has committed a portion of its federal COVID-relief funds to paying for public access to testing.

The drive-through site is another expansion of public testing that has come with the rapid rise of the omicron variant. Last week, the health district restarted pop-up testing in areas around the county, marking the first outreach of that kind since the early days of the pandemic.

More Galveston County residents are being tested for COVID-19. During the first full week of December, the Galveston County Health District reported the results of about 650 COVID-19 tests a day. This week, the district reported the results of about 2,200 tests a day.

During the week of Dec. 5, about 8 percent of tests collected from county residents were positive for COVID-19. During the week of Jan. 2, about 21 percent of tests collected from residents were positive, according to the health district.

A smaller percentage of tests collected since Jan. 9 have come back positive, but it can take a week or longer for tests results to be fully reported.

County officials this week said they were concerned and frustrated that people were seeking and paying for tests at private providers when the free COVID tests were available through the medical branch.

The drive-through testing program will be open next week. Officials are in early talks about extending it through the week of Jan. 24.

The county has committed to funding public testing efforts through at least June.

“We continue to fully support and fund testing initiatives,” Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said in a statement Friday. “With such a high demand for testing right now, this temporary testing site at the Health District makes sense in ensuring that every resident has access to a test if they need one.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people should be tested for COVID-19 if they have symptoms of the virus or if they have had recent close contact with someone who has tested positive within the past five days.

The CDC doesn’t say it’s necessary to wait for a negative test result to safely end an isolation period. People who test positive and are asymptomatic should isolate for at least five days, according to the CDC.

People with symptoms should isolate until those symptoms subside and wait another five days after that, according to the CDC.


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Daily News offices closed Monday for MLK Day

Daily News offices will be closed Monday to allow employees to observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Normal business hours will resume at 8 a.m. Tuesday.


National
AP
New Texas voting law snags US citizens, mail ballot requests

AUSTIN

A sweeping new Texas voting law that Republicans muscled through the Legislature last year over dramatic protests is drawing fire again, even before some of the most contentious restrictions and changes kick in ahead of the state’s first-in-the nation primary.

Thousands of Texans — including some U.S. citizens — have received letters saying they have been flagged as potential noncitizens who could be kicked off voting rolls. And this week, local elections officials said hundreds of mail-in ballot applications are being rejected for not including required new information.

“It’s just a bad situation on a number of levels,” said James Slattery, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, one of several voting rights groups that has sued the state over the new law.

The Texas law was approved last year by Republicans, who joined their party colleagues in at least 18 states, including Florida, Georgia and Arizona, in enacting new voting restrictions since the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The national GOP campaign to tighten voting laws has been partly driven by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he, not President Joe Biden won the election.

Democrats have strenuously objected — including by walking out to gridlock the Legislature, warning it could disenfranchise untold numbers of voters, especially Black, Latino and Asian people. Many of its provisions, such as expanded powers for partisan poll watchers, don’t take effect until the election. But Democrats and civil rights groups say what has happened so far is alarming.

First, Texas sent letters to more than 11,000 voters warning them their registrations will be canceled unless they prove to their local elections office they are citizens. More than 2,000 registrations ended after the voters did not come in, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. But some who received the warning letters were citizens.

Monty Tew, a 52-year-old who was born in Texas, said he couldn’t understand why he got the letter asking him to prove his citizenship. He said he paid $30 to request a copy of his birth certificate, which he then sent the county a picture of as proof of citizenship and was soon notified the issue was resolved.

“I feel fortunate for that not to have been that big of a deal, it wasn’t that burdensome,” said Tew, of Round Rock, a city outside Austin. “But I can imagine how that can be a much bigger flogging for someone else perhaps, if they didn’t have their hands on technology or if paying someone $30 to get something that was a waste of your time, money and effort could be a hassle.”

Then this week, election administrators in some of Texas’ largest counties, which are run by Democrats, began raising early alarms about hundreds of mail-in ballot applications they’ve had to reject for not complying with strict new provisions.

Tucked into the 76-page law is a new requirement that voter include either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on mail-in ballot applications, or the number of a state-issued identification.

Counties then match those numbers to their records before mailing an actual ballot. Texas already had some of the nation’s most restrictive mail-in ballot rules, and was among only a handful of states that did not expand mail balloting in 2020 during the pandemic.

As of Friday, Harris County officials said they had rejected more than 200 of 1,200 applications from voters in the Houston area. In Austin, county election officials put the rate of rejections at roughly 50 percent.

“It’s definitely a red flag,” said Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator. “At this point, to be so low in the number of applications and have a 20 percent rejection rate for the primaries? It’s really got me worried.”

The Secretary of State’s office said in a statement Friday that counties should check with it on how to properly reject mail ballots. It had previously said the letters warning voters they may lose their right to vote were sent as part of the implementation of the new voting law. That measure includes provisions setting out a procedure to comply with a settlement of a 2019 lawsuit settlement over the last time Texas had tried to weed out noncitizen voters and ended up threatening to revoke the registration of large numbers of U.S. citizens as well.

“Voters who do not provide proof of citizenship to their county voter registrar within 30 days of receiving the notice of examination will have their registration cancelled, with the opportunity to be reinstated if the voter later provides proof of citizenship, including at the polling place,” said Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the office.

Of the 2,327 voters whose registration have been canceled through the procedure, 278 have been confirmed as noncitizens, Taylor said.

But civil rights groups say the state is not taking the correct steps to ensure U.S. citizens don’t get caught in the process. The state is supposed to only flag people who identified as noncitizens on their driver’s licenses after registering to vote. But it’s also catching some like Harish Vyalla, 35, of Austin, who said he has voted in the county at least twice since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2013.

“I had no concerns because I know I am a citizen with proper documentation, but I was surprised because nobody had asked me in the past,” said Vyalla, adding it took about a month to preserve his right to vote. “The government should already have all these proofs and documents in hand.”

Nina Perales, an attorney with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, helped write the settlement of the 2019 case. She said state state officials are clearly not following it and are setting themselves up for another lawsuit.

Perales said Texas voters should brace for a potential rocky voting experience as the law’s provisions fully kick in during the March 1 primary.

“Texans would be well-served to know their rights when they go to the polls, because I think there’ll be confusion and doubt for a lot of voters,” Perales said.


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