In August, officials with Medical Center Hospital (MCH) in Odessa made a plea for help to both the City of Odessa and the Ector County Commissioners, asking for financial assistance due to the increased costs of treating COVID-19 patients during the latest surge. 

City officials responded quickly to the ask, inviting hospital officials before the council to state their case and soon thereafter approved millions in support that went to hire additional nurses and staff. 

Ector County’s response, however, has been significantly different. 

The hospital made their pitch for aid to the city and county due to the fact both had received a significant amount of funding from the federal government through the American Rescue Act, with Ector County receiving the first of two, $16 million payments ($32 million total) with the second payment set to arrive in spring of 2022. 

In addition, the hospital says they have figured out how both entities can get reimbursed by the federal government for any money they give to the hospital, which will essentially result in doubling the funding to the benefit of Ector County residents. 

Ector County officials were quick to use a portion of the money to help pay for increased costs the county experienced due to the pandemic, incorporating $4.5 million into their budget. 

But with nearly two months having elapsed since the hospital made the original request to be considered for funding, county officials have largely been silent on the issue except to question the hospital’s need of the funding, and then taking the unusual step of voting unanimously on September 27 to hire a consultant firm to “vet” and audit applicants for funding, including the hospital. 

The consultant would then issue a recommendation to the county on how to approve the funds. 

Ector County Judge Debi Hays is reported saying after the vote to hire the vetting consultant that while she isn’t for or against giving funding to the hospital, “at some point, through the normal process, the question has to be asked, ‘how much money do you need?”

Emails obtained by Odessa Headlines via public records requests have revealed that the Judge has actually denied the hospital the opportunity to fully explain to them ‘through the normal process’ what the needs of the hospital are.

In an email from MCH CEO Russell Tippin to Judge Hays dated August 12, Tippin asked Hays to add three items on the agenda for the August 24 commissioners court meeting, which would have allowed Tippin sufficient time to explain to the county all the details surrounding their request for funding to hire “critical care nurses” purchase additional ventilators, and other expenses relating to COVID-19. 

All told, Tippin requested $6.5 million from the county.

Judge Hays did not respond to Tippin for nearly a week, prompting Tippin to email the Judge once more, writing “Judge, is there any update on this request? Did this get approved for the agenda? Just wondering….??????” 

Judge Hays finally responded to Tippin later that day, writing in a single sentence, “MCH will have the opportunity at the Commissioners Court meeting to request the needs of the hospital.” 

However, when the August 24 commissioner’s court agenda was released, none of the items Tippin requested were listed, and Tippin did not get much of an opportunity.  

Instead, the Judge added a single all-encompassing agenda item relating to the American Rescue Act funds and the COVID-19 pandemic and placed Tippin in line with eight other entities, including two county departments, all asking the commissioners for a portion of the federal funds and limited time to address the court to three minutes each. 

The lack of willingness to communicate with the hospital, coupled with the county judge denying the hospital the opportunity to come fully explain their need before the court, has drawn ire and anger from hospital officials who say if the Judge doesn’t know what the hospital’s needs are, it is because she is working hard not to know.

“To give an analogy, it’s like someone plugged their fingers in their ears and said, ‘I can’t hear you, talk to my consultant’ all while lives are at stake,” Ector County Hospital Board President Bryn Dodd said in a statement. 

It is unknown how long it will take the county to hire a vetting consultant, and how long it will take the consultant to review the hospital’s application. 

It also remains to be seen how much the consultant will cost Ector County taxpayers. 

Matt Stringer is a journalist from Odessa, Texas.