CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — In late 2020 Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales asked for help in getting a study funded that would look at the overall health of the county as well as COVID-19's impact on the community.
The Nueces County Hospital District agreed and spent $503,000 for the study, Advancing Health Equity in Nueces County Amid and Beyond the Covid-19 Pandemic.
But, recordings from public meetings and interviews with 6 Investigates reveal the Hospital District's board of directors and CEO believed that money would be reimbursed by the county.
"It was clear that the county was going to work with the district to get reimbursement for this work," said Jonny Hipp, CEO of the district.
On November 17, 2021, Nueces County Commissioners were asked to reimburse the Hospital District the $503,000, so that the county could then submit a claim for FEMA reimbursement as an eligible COVID-19 expense. Under FEMA guidelines, entities must expend costs before asking for reimbursement.
But Nueces County Commissioner for Precinct 4 Brent Chesney questioned the contract, which would reimburse the Hospital District, but provide no guarantee the county would be reimbursed. He also questioned why it was never a request made by the court as a whole.
"Why would we be doing that when we as a court never authorized the Hospital District to go do it we didn't ask him (Hipp)?" Chesney said. "To find out the County Judge allegedly went in and asked the Hospital District to do this without authority by the commissioner's court and now the Hospital District is looking to the county to repay that based on the county judge's unauthorized representations."
During that meeting, Chesney asked Hipp how the request was made of the district.
Hipp said there was a clear indication by Canales to use its efforts to get the district reimbursement. He also told 6 Investigates this was a non-standard request. Canales signed the contracts with the companies hired, as the emergency manager of the county.
Canales said she never promised the Hospital District that they would be reimbursed, but the county should do what it could to help.
In the end, commissioners asked the district to seek FEMA reimbursement on their own, utilizing the contractor the county uses, and the district allocated $50,000 to recoup these costs.
Earlier this month, the district received notification from FEMA that its request was denied.
"At this moment it's a denial, but we've been told by official channels that it's going to be rescinded," Hipp said.
Shortly after that interview with 6 Investigates, FEMA rescinded the denial and then issued another denial. Which the Hospital District plans to appeal. This appeal will require another $25,0000 to the county's contractor.
"I feel really good that within the next 4 months, we'll be able to recover these dollars in whole or in part," Canales said.
But Chesney disagreed, saying FEMA appeals are difficult to win.
"FEMA appeals are very very difficult to win almost impossible to win and I understand they're going to re-issue another letter under another clause that says we're still going to deny it so the indigent people in this community are the ones that are going to suffer," he said.
If FEMA denies this appeal, the Hospital District's board of directors says they will be asking Nueces County to reimburse the money paid for this study, which Canales said was used to select vaccine locations.
Funds for this study came from the Hospital District's general operation fund, which if not recovered, will impact indigent care, or from Nueces County taxpayers.
"Our public health group utilized this study in order to set up vaccination clinics all over our community, including the rural communities, including places that might be considered completely unconventional, for example, La Palmera mall," Canales said.
But, the La Palmera mall vaccination site opened in April 2021, the exact month this study was completed. And the results of the study were not announced until June 2021.
6 Investigates also asked the Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District if the data was utilized in the selection of vaccination clinics.
"I'm not aware of anybody utilizing it, I know the few individuals that I have asked, this was not a determinate on where they were setting up the vaccine clinics," said Dante Gonzalez, assistant director of public health.
Canales also said that the Centers for Disease Control and Health and Human Services used data from the study. We asked for documentation she and her office say exists, but it has not been provided.
We also asked for a link to the dashboard created alongside this study, paid for with public funds. Neither Hipp nor Canales' office has provided that link.
Hipp said the Hospital District has not used the study, and he did not have a link to the dashboard.