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Harlingen leaders react to med school plans

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Posted: Monday, February 4, 2013 10:35 pm

HARLINGEN — The biggest challenge to bringing a medical school here will be mustering the support of two-thirds of state lawmakers.

Legislation was introduced Monday in Austin to create and fund a state university and a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley, which would create as many as 10,000 good-paying jobs in the Valley.

Some state lawmakers may oppose House Bill 1000 and Sen. Bill 24 based on the perception that the proposed university and medical school would drain funding from existing universities in other parts of the state, Randy Whittington, president of the South Texas Medical Foundation in Harlingen, said.

The merger of the Regional Academic Health Center, now with sites in Harlingen and Edinburg; the University of Texas at Brownsville and Univeristy of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg makes the proposed consolidated university eligible for funding from Texas’ Permanent University Fund. But a two-thirds’ vote of the Legislature is needed to pass the bill to allow funding from PUF.

“That’s the biggest and most immediate” challenge, Whittington said.

The PUF, which derives its funding from oil and gas revenues, funds the University of Texas and Texas A&M universities, he said.

“Whenever you start talking about another school participating in funding, there are folks who believe that would reduce the funding they receive,” Whittington said.

Whittington said South Texas leaders must have 100 votes of the House of Representative’s 150 members, and 21 of 31 state senators’ votes to pass the bill.

“It’s always tough to get two-thirds on any legislation of any significance,” he said.

Whittington said Valley leaders could face opposition from a growing number of fiscally conservative lawmakers.

But the merger of UTB and UTPA would produce a cost savings of between $6 million and $7 million by reducing administrative positions, he said.

Lawmakers said the university’s Board of Regents would decide where to locate the campuses and what it would be named.

The Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen opened in 2002 as the foundation of a “regional” medical school, Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell said.

Whittington said the center has helped spawn a medical complex that includes a veterans clinic and Su Clinica Familiar that attracts Valley doctors to open their offices in Harlingen.

“There’s nothing to take away from what we have here in Harlingen,” Boswell said. “We have the bulk of the assets. The RAHC campus in Harlingen would be part of that university. To become part of a university is a very existing thing. There’s a perception that a medical school is one building and everything happens there. But doctors are trained in residency programs throughout the Valley in different hospitals.”

Valley lawmakers have formed a “united front” to draw state support for their proposal, Whittington said.

“We have a history of competing with each other,” Whittington said, referring to Valley cities. “But where a particular building is located is no where as important … as a medical school. The message we try to deliver is that there’s plenty to go around for everyone.”

Manny Vela, president and chief executive officer of Valley Baptist Health System, said the hospital would help win votes to pass the bill.

“Any and every opportunity to further higher education in the Rio Grande Valley is a golden opportunity,” Vela said. “This one in particular is a potential game changer for the region. Valley Baptist has a strong partnership with UT regarding medical education and we will offer UT any support that we can give them in an effort to secure the necessary legislative votes to pass this historic bill.”

Dr. Francisco Gonzalez-Scarano, dean of the School of Medicine at University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, called Harlingen’s RAHC campus “a primary center of (medical) activity.”

“There is a lot of outstanding space in Harlingen,” Gonzalez-Scarano said.

Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen would continue to play a “major role” in the medical school, Gonzalez-Scarano said.

“It’s a regional effort in which Harlingen will play a key role,” he said.

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