AUSTIN, May 18 - A key stakeholder in the negotiations to bring a four-year medical school to the Rio Grande Valley has been Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.
The hospital, situated in Edinburg, is committed to spending $60 million on residency programs in conjunction with the UT System. Students based at the hospital would get hands on experience in the fields of internal medicine, general surgery, OB GYN, and family medicine.
Israel Rocha, governmental affairs director at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, has been leading DHR’s negotiations on the medical school legislation. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Rocha said DHR supported an amendment to the legislation in Senate by state Sen. Juan Hinojosa and an amendment to the legislation in the House by state Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, that strikes out the setting up of an independent blue ribbon task force to advise the UT System where the medical school should be located.
Rocha said a blue ribbon task force would have wasted valuable time and jeopardized the chances of securing an additional $70 million in federal funds for the medical school project. He pointed out that Hidalgo County commissioners, plus the cities of Edinburg, McAllen, and Pharr have committed to spending $50 million on a medical school for the Upper Valley. Rocha said that money could be leveraged to draw down an additional $70 million from the federal government under the 1115 Waiver program.
However, the 1115 Waiver money is only available for the next four years, Rocha said, and waiting for a blue ribbon task force to study and make recommendations and for the UT System to go through an appeals process would have eaten into the time the waiver program is in existence.
“With the pledge of support from the cities you can immediately utilize the 1115 Waiver. With the amendment, the medical school goes from one passing with a blue ribbon committee study to one which becomes a shovel ready project,” Rocha said. “The minute the legislation passes the cities will start committing and working to transfer their money into an 1115 Waiver process with CMS and HHSC to get started immediately, to start building those components and moving forward with an action plan.”
CMS is the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. HHSC is the Texas Health and Human Services Committee.
Rocha elaborated on his theme. “What we can be studying is the way that we are going to implement the medical school rather than how and where we are going to implement the medical school. We feel that this amendment cuts, at the minimum, five to seven years off the process to develop a four-year medical school.”
Asked if the possibility of drawing down the 1115 Waiver funds is really possible for the medical school project, Rocha said: “It is very possible. The Valley was awarded a very large amount of money under the 1115 waiver that could be utilized. We have not been able to take advantage of it because you need a local transfer. We still have about $500 million available over a four year period. This local money would leverage at least $100 of that $500 million to create a medical school. So, through this process it could be done immediately.”
Rocha said that rather than do a study “in which we lose out because time runs out on the waiver process,” the money allocated by Hidalgo County and the three cities could be leveraged to build the medical school at a pre-determined location.
The amendments by Hinojosa and Rep. Lucio state that UT should primarily have education for first and second year medical school students in the Upper Valley. Third and fourth year students would receive clinical education in the Lower Valley.
“Our cities have committed $50 million. That is hard money that is able to be transferred into the waiver and draw down more federal funds so it could bring an additional $70 million, so a total of $120 million. Their money is already allocated. It is available. It is a matter of submitting the project. DHR would pump in $60 million, all funds included, in partnership with UT to build the residencies,” Rocha said.
Rocha also pointed out that Hidalgo County is negotiating with the City of Edinburg to provide 93 acres of land to the north of the UT-Pan American campus, near the baseball stadium. This is where the medical school would be built, he said.
Asked if he had any words of reassurance for the people of Cameron County, some of whom may have been hoping to have the medical school located at the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, Rocha said the legislation, with the amendments, was a “win-win” for all parts of the Valley.
“You basically split the medical school 50-50. Each community gets what they are strongest at doing. You get years one and two in the Upper Valley and three and four in the Lower Valley. That is very clearly defined in the bill. No one is trying to remove anyone from the equation on the building of a regional medical school,” Rocha said.
“At the end of the day, if you devoid politics, and you just look at where you have the greatest amount of scientists, you have a very large four year university (UTPA) with graduate programs and PhD programs and natural science programs and laboratories and a RAHC building (next to UTPA) that was designed for medical research to augment and fulfill that kind of development. And you have a very, very, robust third and fourth year program at Cameron County. The infrastructure speaks for itself.”
Rocha said that for the legislation to pass the in-fighting had to stop. “Sooner or later you have to cross the Rubicon and pick the places where the medical school would go. Whether the decision is made by a blue ribbon task force or the legislature there will always be parties that are happy or unhappy. No one will be 100 percent uniformly happy but we think we have gotten to an area that best utilizes the assets we have.”
Rocha also spoke about the unheard of collaboration taking place in the Upper Valley and why it made sense to put the first two years of medical education in the Upper Valley. “McAllen giving money to build something in Edinburg is unheard of. Pharr, also, is giving money to build something in Edinburg. That is unheard of. The county giving money even though years three and four will be in Cameron County, that kind of collaboration is pretty monumental and unique. At some point you just have to say, this is where the location has got to go.
“We have waited 20 years for the medical school. In that time our community has been the most uninsured community in the country. Our population is growing, and our physician community is shrinking. With these things in place we can use to take shape in the medical school and move it from a theoretical project to a shovel ready project.”
Editor's Note: This is the first of a six-part series on the passage of legislation to create a four-year medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.