Public Hospital Nabs $15 Million Private Gift

The Harris County Hospital District has received a record-breaking charitable donation that will help pay for cancer treatment for the poor and uninsured. KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel has more. 

Lester and Sue Smith have given millions to various private hospitals in the medical center. But this was the first time they have given to the public hospital district. Smith says he was surprised to learn that Ben Taub Hospital was using a mammography machine from 1986.

“And we’re over there at Baylor, Baylor College of Medicine in the breast center there, with the latest and greatest of digital equipment that’s brand new – it was just, it screamed of having to do this. I heard too many stories of women coming into Ben Taub with stage 4 breast cancer.”

the Smiths
H. Ben Taub (left), chairman of the Harris County Hospital District Foundation, thanks donors Sue and Lester Smith for their $15 million gift towards a new outpatient clinic building.

The Smiths gave $15 million, the biggest single gift in the district’s history.

Lester is a wealthy oilman who has survived bladder and prostate cancer. Sue Smith lost a sister to breast cancer. So oncology has been a natural focus for the couple.

Still, donating to a public hospital district was a new step.

Like many Houstonians, the couple knew the district got taxpayer revenue. What they didn’t know was that the district must also raise private funds to fill in the financial gaps.

Lisa Whitaker is the executive director of the district’s foundation.

“Harris County Hospital District is virtually unknown, it’s the best secret in Houston. People think ‘Oh it’s Ben Taub,’ but it is actually a health system of three hospitals, 13 clinics, mobile mammography vans, school clinics and has not had the awareness of the more glamorous and visible members of the Texas Medical Center.”

The Hospital District will use the $15 million to outfit its new outpatient building with the latest technology for chemotherapy, radiation and diagnostic imaging.

The five-story building is still under construction on Holly Hall Street. Eventually it will be known as the Smith Clinic. Smith says he hopes to set an example for other philanthropists to support public hospitals.

But that’s not all. He also wants the Harris County Commissioners to increase the hospital’s tax rate.

“I told Commissioner Lee, you’ll rue the day that you ever met me, I’m gonna camp out over your place. I’m going to talk to them and say ‘We need to, over time, raise what the Harris County gets to give to the Hospital District.’”

Smith points out that to support their public hospitals, residents of Dallas and San Antonio pay 27 cents per $100 in assessed property value, while Harris County residents only pay 19 cents.

From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...