|McALLEN, December 13 - Healthcare and education issues top state Sen. Juan Hinojosa’s agenda for the 84th legislative session, with funding for the new UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine a particular priority.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the McAllen Democrat said he is seeking $40 million for the medical school, along with “full funding” for residency programs across the state so that Texas does not lose its young doctors to states like New York, Illinois and California.
Hinojosa also spoke about tweaking legislation he passed last session to allow Hidalgo County to set up a hospital district, though the entity may be given a new name. He said he has been listening to the views of stakeholders and voters since the hospital district referendum was narrowly defeated by voters last month.
“Healthcare continues to be an important issue for me and for my senatorial district, for the simple reason that it is an important part of our quality of life. We are living longer and we have a very young population. We need good quality healthcare,” Hinojosa said.
With regard to the UTRGV medical school, Hinojosa said additional state funding will be required if it is to launch successfully in 2016.
“One of the key funding requests is $40 million to fund our medical school that opens in 2016. The funding is key to continue moving forward with setting up and properly accrediting our medical school,” Hinojosa said.
Asked if this could be his top priority item, Hinojosa answered in the affirmative.
“Without a doubt, it will be a top priority in terms of funding. We are already going through the process of identifying the different sources of revenue and getting the staff from other legislators focused on this. It is a key request for funding,” Hinojosa said.
The veteran legislator said legislation would not be needed to secure the additional funding. Instead, it could come during the formulation of the next state budget. “I think it will be an appropriation request through our finance committee. We in Texas are very fortunate that our economy is strong. We will have approximately $6.7 billion above the spending base of last session, which was over $200 billion.”
Asked how confident he is that he can secure the $40 million, Hinojosa said: “I am confident it will come through. There are two sources of funding from the state: one is formula funding which every medical school gets, depending on the number of students it has, and the other one is special item requests. Since UTRGV is a brand new medical school it requires more money upfront to be able to get up and running.”
With regard to funding for residency programs, Hinojosa said it makes no sense for Texas to educate tomorrow’s doctors and then loose them to other states because there are not enough residency slots. He pointed out that most doctors end up setting up practice where they took their residency.
“One of our priorities is to fund 100 percent of the residency programs we need to provide training for all of our medical graduates. Right now, we do not have enough residency slots in the state of Texas so many of medical school graduates go to the state of Illinois, the state of New York, California and do the residency training in other states and then they stay over there. We do not want to educate medical doctors to move to other states. We want them to stay in Texas where we have a great need for them,” Hinojosa said.
The South Texas border region is officially recognized as an under-served region when it comes to access to healthcare. Therefore, Hinojosa said, establishing strong, well-funded residency programs here is even more important.
“We are an underserved area in terms of medical doctors. It is very important we get the medical school up and running but at the same time create the residency slots necessary for the students to receive training. Studies show the vast majority of doctors stay in the area where they do their residency. I commend Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, McAllen Medical, and Valley Baptist for stepping up to the plate and moving towards creating the residency slots necessary to keep our medical school graduates here in the Valley.”
Much of Hinojosa’s legislative work in recent months has been focused on reviewing certain state agencies. This is because he sits on the Sunset Commission. As a result, he said, he has not had enough time to study the legislative wish-lists of the counties and cities in his senatorial district, which runs from McAllen to Corpus Christi. However, with the sunset review period coming to a close he said he is confident he will be up to speed on the issues that matter to cities such as McAllen, Edinburg, Mission, Falfurrias and Corpus Christi and counties such as Brooks, Hidalgo and Nueces. “We are reviewing the different requests that have come in and getting the drafts back for the different bills we have filed,” Hinojosa noted.
On the subject of a hospital district for Hidalgo County, Hinojosa said he would tweak what was passed last session and run his bill through the “local and uncontested” route. This should ensure speedy passage into law.
“We are working on making changes to the hospital district legislation based upon the feedback we received from the public and other community leaders in terms of a cap on property taxes, in terms of having the county reduce their property taxes by the same amount of money they are committed to setting aside for indigent care,” Hinojosa said.
“We will also probably be changing the name from the hospital district to a healthcare service district. There was a lot of confusion among the general public. Many people thought this referendum was to create a new hospital and it is not about a hospital, it is about a healthcare district. We are looking at making these various changes, including placing in statute all the exemptions that are now provided, such as those for the disabled, for those who have a homestead and for those who are over 65,” Hinojosa said.
If a healthcare services district is created for Hidalgo County, its county commissioner’s court would not have to dedicate taxpayer funds for indigent healthcare. The new district would take on this responsibility. Asked about this, Hinojosa said: “It’s about $12 million a year out of a budget that increases every year. However, setting up a healthcare services district is not just about healthcare for the indigent. It is about the ability to bring down matching federal funds.
“The benefits to the county by having a healthcare services district can be immense. It allows for lower insurance premiums for those who can afford insurance. It allows for being proactive in terms of healthcare. It means less sickness in the region. It really is a great improvement in terms of our healthcare services to the general public. The cost savings will help across the board. And, hundreds and thousands of new jobs will be created.”
Hinojosa acknowledged that one of the biggest reasons voters rejected the creation of a hospital district was the thought of having a taxing cap of 75 cents per $100 of property valuation. “The cap will be reduced to at least 25 cents, maybe even lower than that,” Hinojosa said. “We want the voters to feel comfortable that this is a very positive step in terms of lessening the tax burden on a long term basis as healthcare costs continue to increase.”
Hinojosa added this about the healthcare services district: “We need to emphasize the economic benefit we will have in Hidalgo County. The amount of federal funds we can draw down is great. We want to rework the language to take care of all the suggestions and recommendations made by different groups and people here in Hidalgo. In addition we want to try to respond to some of the criticism from those who opposed the creation of a healthcare district, who wanted proper control of the budgets.”
Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian will be interviewing other members of the South Texas legislative delegation in the run-up to the 84th Legislature to find out what their top legislative agenda items are.