The night in June 1998 when authorities learned that three white men in Jasper had dragged James Byrd Jr. to his death behind a truck, George Miller was on his way back to East Texas from a conference in New Orleans.
“My first thought: What can I do to help?” says Miller, then CEO of the Jasper hospital, now CEO of Austin’s CommUnity Care system of public clinics. “We knew we were going to be besieged by news media because of this horrific murder.”
As a highly placed and respected African-American administrator, Miller called a meeting of city leaders.
“We’ve got to put a face on it,” he told the leaders. “We don’t want everybody to think of us as this small, redneck East Texas town.”
As expected, every group from the Black Panthers to the Ku Klux Klan descended on Jasper. Miller was interviewed by CBS, BBC and reporters from around the world. He asked Jesse Jackson not to use the incident as an opportunity to exploit the town. After all, he had been hired, Miller explained, by nine white guys; he and his family had been treated extraordinarily well during their time there.
In the end, Miller was credited as among the leaders who kept Jasper from ripping apart at the seams.
“One thing I did learn was that the majority of human beings are decent and want the best for their families and communities,” he says. “If you can communicate in the right way, you can solve almost any problem.”
From banking to health care
Miller, 62, grew up in Dayton, Ohio. His father was an electrical engineer whose family had immigrated from the Bahamas; his mother was a nurse whose people came from South Carolina.
The eldest of three siblings — his brother and sister are still involved in education back in Dayton — Miller was ambitious, outgoing, somewhat studious and excellent at football, baseball, track, fencing and cross country.
“Dayton back then was a pretty prosperous, medium-sized city,” he recalls. “A typical Midwestern town heavily dependent on the auto industry. It has shrunk since then. Some big businesses have moved away.”
Miller studied business at Bowling Green University in Kentucky and rose to vice president of the student body and president of its Omega Psi Phi fraternity chapter. Out of school, he spent nine years in the banking industry. His move into health care management was purely accidental and against some residual family feeling.
“As a nurse, my mother had a particular disdain for the ‘suits,’” he says with a smile.
The bank he ran at the time took over another one in Newport News, Va. There, the local hospital needed financing, and Miller found them a good rate. “I became a local hero,” he says. “They offered me a job as assistant administrator. Well, I was president of a bank. Then they told me the salary — and I had an epiphany.”
The formerly married father of three children then earned his master’s degree in services administration at Central Michigan University.
After gigs with hospitals across the country, Miller was hired in 2013 to run CommUnity Care, a system of health clinics begun in 1970 through collaboration between the city of Austin and Travis County. Now run by Central Health, it serves 66,000 or so patients a year on a budget of more than $64 million, with much of the money coming from the Central Health taxing district and the federal government.
The era of Obamacare
After arriving on Sept. 6, Miller visited all 22 CommUnity Care locations, which offer, among other things, mental health services, adult and pediatric services, dental services and, despite recent complications in state funding, women’s services.
“I’m impressed with their commitment to our mission,” he says of the personnel he has met. “We serve a wide variety of patients — with a heart for the poor and vulnerable.”
He’s also proud of the group’s homeless shelter and its nationally recognized HIV clinic, the David Powell Center. Still, no system is without flaws, and Miller has laid out a plan to improve access, quality, efficiency, effectiveness and patient satisfaction. He also wants CommUnity Care to be an employer of choice.
“As we talk about expansion … we want to attract the best, hire the best and be the very best,” he says. His system already partners with universities, nonprofits and public/private groups to cut down on redundancy and with Seton Healthcare Family on emergency services.
“We have learned that patients located near some of our clinic locations are electing to go to the emergency room, instead of our clinics,” he says. “We will be working closely with Seton to make sure patients are getting the right care, at the right time, and at the right place.”
Miller is particularly excited about working with Dr. Larry Earvin and Dr. Roderick Smothers at Huston-Tillotson University to provide comprehensive health care for East Austinites on the college campus.
The reforms known as Obamacare might throw up temporary challenges for his system, but in the long run, he says, wider access to insurance will do more than just remove financial burdens from those who can least afford it, while encouraging folks to take care of problems before they become debilitating and exponentially more expensive.
“You can have the best idea in the world,” Millers says. “If you can’t communicate it effectively, it means nothing: The more people who have health insurance, the healthier everyone is.”
Story By: Michael Barnes