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Med school within reach

Compromise sails through House, now heads to Senate

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Posted: Friday, May 17, 2013 10:30 pm

AUSTIN — A consolidated state university and medical school in the Rio Grande Valley is on the verge of reality as lawmakers reached a compromise that is poised for legislative approval.

The compromise was reached late Thursday and passed unanimously on second reading Friday in the Texas House, said JJ Garza, chief of staff to state Rep. Rene Oliveira. From the House, the bill will go back to the state Senate for a concurrence vote, most likely on Monday.

Randy Whittington, president of the South Texas Medical Foundation, said the compromise was reached after much discussion among legislators, local government leaders and the University of Texas Board of Regents, with state Rep. Eddie Lucio III helping to facilitate the discussions.

“There are pieces contributed by everyone,” Whittington said.

The compromise bill provides for the new medical school to use existing facilities at the University of Texas-Pan American, University of Texas Brownsville, the Regional Academic Health Centers in Harlingen and Edinburg and the UT-Brownsville School of Public Health, Garza said.

Under the compromise, first- and second-year medical students will be based in Hidalgo County, and third- and fourth-year medical students will be based in Cameron County, Whittington said, adding, “but that doesn’t mean they have to do every single minute” at either location.

Offices that oversee undergraduate medical education will be located in Hidalgo County, and the corresponding offices for graduate medical education will be in Cameron County, he said. These students will participate in programs throughout the Valley.

“Those students aren’t spending time in classrooms and labs,” Whittington said. “They’re in hospitals and clinics.”

But most importantly, Whittington said, the compromise allows the UT regents flexibility and discretion.

“The idea was to provide parameters for the medical school but leave flexibility for the regents to adapt programs as they see best and to adapt, as years go by, as medical education changes,” he said.

Whittington and Garza both said that the medical school was never envisioned, as what Garza called, “one monolithic medical school in one place.”

The compromise was reached after two weeks of legislative wrangling that followed an amendment by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, to the original House Bill 1000, authored by Oliveira.

The amendment required that the first two years of medical school classes be held in Hidalgo County, the second two years in Cameron County, and eliminated an advisory committee to make recommendations to the UT regents about locations and curriculum.

Oliveira ultimately backed the compromise, Garza said, because the language maintained the “regionality” of the original wording.

“The compromise is not what Sen. Hinojosa offered,” Garza said.

Oliveira wanted to insure that the new university is created so it is eligible for the multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund.

Whittington called the compromise “entirely consistent” with the original vision for a medical school in the Valley.

“The language in the compromise is better than the language in Sen. Hinojosa’s amendment,” he said. “Our goal was to have a medical school in the Valley, and that’s what we’ve got. Finally.”

cvandini@valleystar.com