Health in the Rio Grande Valley: Medical school’s progress, ‘Healthy South Texas’ initiative, VA secretary’s visit promising for future; health care district polarizes

Dr. Francisco Fernandez refers to it as “a bum rap.”

The founding dean for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s School of Medicine doesn’t mince words when discussing the region’s ill-fated perception as a relatively unhealthy community.

Consider that while diabetes, heart disease and obesity are common in the area, they also (and arguably) represent what could be regarded as the Valley’s great leviathan.

As much is evident when further considering that a historically underserved people’s calls for more resources and better care have so rarely been answered adequately, and assistance for the area’s veterans is not only limited but, according to many, hard to come by.

Fernandez was contemplative on these matters and more in December, while at a groundbreaking ceremony in Mercedes for the Family Practice Residency Clinic — a multi-million dollar Knapp Medical Center project borne out of the hospital’s collaboration with its Community Care Foundation, UTRGV and the City of Mercedes.

“While I realize it’s not all about physicians, just think about the incredible access you’re going to create for at least the medical piece,” Fernandez said.

He emphasized that the residency program could help create a new community of medical professionals in the Valley, citing statistics showing that as much as 80 percent of graduate students stay in the cities where they completed their residency.

Opting to put a number on it, Fernandez estimated that as many as 180 more physicians could serve the Valley in 20 years.

“If you do the same thing for nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, occupational therapy and the new program we’re hoping to get approved for mental health, then all of those things are going to amount to getting rid of the bum rap that the Valley has — that we’re all sick down here; and we don’t have doctors; and we don’t have enough nurses; and we don’t have enough of anything,” Fernandez said.

“If you create the environment and a system to be able to sustain the health of this community, that’s the legacy you want.”

The same could be said of this year’s widespread efforts that aimed to create a climate conducive to disease prevention and healthy living, and the following were the steps taken toward that goal in 2015.

UTRGV School of Medicine accredited

It was announced in October that the UTRGV School of Medicine received preliminary accreditation by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.

The medical school’s unique position of launching under a new university, not to mention its significance and anticipated impact in the Valley, is such that even the announcement of its accreditation came via rare circumstances.

To allow sufficient time for officials to prepare for the school’s first year, which is expected to begin in the fall of 2016, the committee opted to notify university officials of the accreditation verbally. This was in lieu of waiting for the arrival of a formal approval letter.

It was reported this year that, while other universities usually begin recruiting their class a year in advance, UTRGV officials began the process with only a few months’ time to review hundreds of applications.

The school’s inaugural class is expected to start with 50 students as officials were expected to interview anywhere between 200 to 300 applicants through January.

More good news came in December, when the medical school was awarded a $1,065,510 grant from the Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas Inc. for its Integrated Care Collaborative Unit.

Through providing and enhancing integrated care, the grant is designed to improve mental health outcomes of high-risk, high-acuity children and adolescents in the Valley, and will fund services for 300 clients and 1,200 visits.

In addition to the medical school’s accreditation and continued financial support, 2015 also saw its influence prove so significant that, even prior to its opening, it’s already become involved in nearly every facet of the Valley’s medical community.

VA secretary addressed veteran healthcare during visit

Although word of a new VA facility didn’t accompany Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald when he visited the Valley in September, what did arrive was much-needed exposure to the region’s veteran healthcare demands.

During McDonald’s tour of veteran facilities in McAllen and Harlingen, he stressed the importance of improving assistance, customer service and creating partnerships with hospitals and the UTRGV School of Medicine. Prefacing that it would take five years to build a VA hospital in the Valley, McDonald instead insisted that efforts should focus on providing the healthcare veterans deserve.

It was during a roundtable discussion at the University of Texas Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen — where he was accompanied by state and federal representatives and senators, including Sen. John Cornyn and Gov. Greg Abbott, R-TX — when McDonald made his observations. Among them was his take on the School of Medicine.

The officials present largely agreed with the VA secretary, who also spoke with local veterans during his visit — an occurrence many believe may have been of most benefit to Valley veterans.

Healthy South Texas launched

September also marked the occasion when local and state officials came together with educators to tackle diseases that are prevalent in the Valley.

It’s when local and Texas A&M officials launched the Healthy South Texas pilot program. The pilot attracted the presence of A&M Chancellor John Sharp, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville.

Derived from the 2014 Healthy Texas Initiative, the program focuses on creating a national model for prevention and targets Medicaid expenditures for diabetes, asthma and infectious diseases treatments, as well as other such conditions.

The goal with regard to the latter is to accomplish at least a 25-percent reduction in expenditures by 2025.

But Sharp stressed at the launch that the program was “about prevention,” noting that 80 percent of “the stuff that affects us is preventable.”

Receiving $10 million from the state to fund the pilot, it was further reported that combined efforts and expertise of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and the AgriLife Extension Service in Weslaco will spread research-based education, monitoring and interventions to prevent common health diseases.

Health care district polarizes

While there’s arguably been no more polarizing proposal in 2015 than the creation of a Hidalgo County health care district, at the center of heated debate is an age-old issue: taxes.

It was enough to lead the City of Mission to pull its financial support of the UTRGV School of Medicine, which would have consisted of a $1 million per year commitment through 2023.

Mission Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas said the city — which initially joined McAllen ($2 million), Pharr ($500,000), Edinburg and Hidalgo County ($1 million each) in supporting the medical school — decided against pledging its financial support until it’s known whether the healthcare district will take effect next year.

The fear is that the healthcare district would create $2.8 million more in annual taxes for Mission taxpayers.

Salinas expressed further concern that it would be easier to increase the healthcare district’s cap back to its original 75 cents per $100 valuation — this despite Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D- McAllen, and Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, filing a bill in February lowering the cap to 25 cents.

Earlier this year, lawmakers restructured the health care district proposal after property tax concerns led to it being voted down in Hidalgo County in November 2014. Dubbed as a “hospital district” last year, the proposal is designed to fund the medical school and reimburse hospitals for providing health care for people who can’t afford it.

As it’s currently structured, the district would contribute $5 million to the medical school and cover the county’s portion of indigent health care, which is sent to the state before being disbursed among local hospitals.

Although supporters of the healthcare district missed the deadline to file a petition for the proposition’s placement on the November 2015 ballot, it may come back to voters next year.