AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Tuesday, Austin’s top doctor explained he’s not being compensated for long hours in an interim role.
Travis County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to extend Dr. Mark Escott’s interim health authority designation again.
Dr. Escott has been in the role since October of last year. He was hired as the EMS System Medical Director for the City of Austin and Travis County in 2016, and in that role, he was also the Alternate Health Authority for Austin Public Health.
The extension will take effect Oct. 1, appointing him as the continued Interim Health Authority through March 31, 2021.
During the commissioners’ discussion, Commissioner Brigid Shea asked why the process of finding a permanent Health Authority has taken more than a year, so far. The position was vacated in January of 2019.
Dr. Escott attributed the hiring difficulties to a number of factors, saying it’s hard to find qualified applicants, because there’s not a large group of people who have the executive, public health and heath authority experience.
The salary being offered for the vacant Public Health Medical Director is between $185,000 and $195,000, the city says.
While the current pandemic is making the candidate search challenging, Escott said the available salary makes it more difficult to attract qualified candidates.
“If we want to hire the best and the brightest, we’re going to have to have conversations about how to recruit them and how to fund them,” he said.
Dr. Escott also explained he’s not being compensated for his expanded duties as interim health authority during the pandemic. He said for the past six months, he’s been working 60 to 80 hours a week in that capacity, in addition to some of his other duties.
While the EMS department gets some money to backfill his duties as EMS Director, according to Dr. Escott, it’s not enough to cover everything assigned to that role. He estimated the money covers one day a week worth of work.
Commissioner Shea called the insufficient compensation “unacceptable.”
The City of Austin told KXAN interim salaries are determined after reviewing market data and “other factors.” The city sets the pay rate, but the money comes from Austin Public Health. An interlocal agreement with Travis County also covers a portion of health authority costs.
Dr. Escott said there is a survey going around the Human Resources Department that could lead to compensation, but it’s not set in stone right now.
APH is continuing to search for a permanent replacement through a national search firm. The next round of candidates is set to be interviewed in October, commissioners discussed in the meeting.
Dr. Escott also briefed Travis County leaders on local COVID-19 numbers during Commissioners Court.
In the meeting, he said there’s been a 15% increase in the average number of confirmed cases since Sept. 1.
On the hospital front, Dr. Escott said there’s been a 20% reduction in new hospital admissions since the beginning of the month, and cases in the 10 to 19 age group have decreased a little. Earlier this month, that same age group was seeing the biggest increase in cases in addition to ages 20 to 29.
However, hospitals could experience an increased strain from flu season.
“When we look at last year and the bad flu season that we had, our ICU capacity was maxed out just from flu. If you imagine flu plus COVID-19, it’s just not going to be sustainable,” Dr. Escott explained.
He said APH is already seeing some flu cases, and it is urging the public to get flu vaccines before Oct. 1.
“We are going to have to ration care in that circumstance. So we really do need the community to act now to get their flu shot,” Dr. Escott said.
APH is expecting COVID-19 to be the third largest cause of death for 2020. In August, it estimated COVID-19 had become the fourth-leading cause of death in the county.