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McALLEN, RGV – Following the visit of VA Secretary Robert McDonald to the Rio Grande Valley on Monday, local veterans and members of Congress say they are closer to securing a VA hospital for the region than ever before.

And an entity that could play a big part in making this happen is Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. After listening to a roundtable discussion on veterans issues at the McAllen Convention Center, DHR co-founder Alonzo Cantu expressed his support for expanded healthcare services for Valley veterans.

“We believe in the Valley and we support the Valley and our veterans are a large part of it. We want to support everyone in South Texas through the hospital,” Cantu told the Rio Grande Guardian, in an exclusive interview.

“Now, with the UTRGV affiliation we will have a residency program and through this we are going to help as many people in South Texas as we can. The veterans are a big part of it because there are a lot of them. We could help the veterans by constructing a VA hospital, we could do it in a partnership with UTRGV or we could treat the veterans through the services we provide. We stand ready to help.”

Cantu said Israel Rocha, DHR’s chief executive officer, attended a meeting with McDonald in Harlingen on Monday morning that also included other private healthcare operators and elected officials. The private meeting was organized by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s office.

Another hospital CEO to attend the meeting was Manny Vela of Valley Baptist Health System. “We welcomed the opportunity to meet this morning about the future of healthcare for veterans in the Rio Grande Valley, and thank Senator Cornyn for acting as the catalyst for this important discussion. I would also like to thank Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs Robert McDonald as well as Congressmen Filemon Vela, Rubén Hinojosa, Henry Cuellar and Blake Farenthold for being part of the conversation. We look forward to the private/public collaboration between our elected officials, the Veterans Administration, UTRGV and local healthcare providers, and to continuing to deliver the high quality healthcare our veterans deserve,” Vela said.

Valley Baptist and South Texas Health System had an arrangement with the VA to care for veterans under a voucher system. That program has run its course and now other hospitals in the Valley are believed to want to participate with the VA. South Texas Health System CEO Doug Matney also attended Monday’s meeting with McDonald and Cornyn. Matney could not be reached for comment at press time. Another CEO to attend the meeting in Harlingen was Chris Rivera of Rio Grande Regional Hospital.

McDonald’s comments on the possibility of the VA building a hospital in the Valley on the surface appeared lukewarm but members of the local congressional delegation said later this was not the case. At the McAllen Convention Center roundtable, McDonald said: “I think it is important to focus on the objective. The objective is to make sure the veterans get the care they have already earned. Let’s not focus on what’s the right execution because if you talk to somebody who runs a medical system today they will tell you they are not building big hospitals. If you started building a hospital today you it will not be built for a minimum of five years. Leasing may be better. I don’t want to predict what the outcome will be in terms of the execution but let’s get the job done in making sure the veterans get the care that they want. It might be an education hospital, it might be something else. It might be a partnership.”

Sen. Cornyn participated in the roundtable discussion with McDonald. Cornyn said a 2007 study by independent consultants Booz Allen Hamilton suggested that “the economics would not support” a VA hospital in the region. As a result, Cornyn said, “we have broadened the number of players on the field.” This was a reference to private hospitals such as Valley Baptist and South Texas Health System.

U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa later told the Rio Grande Guardian that the Booz Allen Hamilton study could be consigned to the trash bin.

“The Booz Allen study, you can chuck it. So much has changed since 2007. Our troops are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. We now have 100,000 veterans in the 20 counties of South Texas. We have to look at the numbers again and we are. The need for a veteran’s hospital is here, no question. I say, let’s stop studying this issue and let’s get it done,” Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa said DHR can play a big role in securing a VA hospital.

“It is my opinion that today is the greatest effort ever made to raise the level of awareness of the need to improve the accessibility of healthcare for our South Texas veterans. At the same time we were able to persuade the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Secretary McDonald to look at all the alternatives available to be able to have inpatient care, which means a hospital, for our veterans,” Hinojosa said.

“He sees the possibilities of partnering with some of the hospitals that are here in this region, or possibly adding an annex, a wing to the Veterans Medical Center in Harlingen, or the 57,000 square-feet, supersized outpatient clinic in McAllen. The VA thinks that could be a possibility. Thirdly, he thinks a private hospital like DHR could possibly enter a partnership with the VA. He is looking at all the alternatives and has a team that has accompanied him on his airplane. They have been listening and taking notes and getting written material from everyone who has a plan.”

Hinojosa added that he is working hard with Congressmen Filemon Vela and Henry Cuellar, as well as the Valley’s legislative delegation in Austin to secure a VA hospital for the region. “The Valley delegation in Austin has been very creative in passing legislation to create a state and federal partnership for a veteran’s hospital. We are listening to our veterans and their needs. It is about time that we implemented the best option and secure a building that will bear the name of South Texas Veterans Hospital.”

Congressman Cuellar was equally bullish about establishing a VA hospital.

“Today we saw a unified effort. Everybody was here together as a team. Because of that we are going to be able to do a lot more. I think the UT-RGV Medical School is going to provide so many opportunities. I think the VA Secretary is going to go back and say, you know what, let’s do a partnership with the school of medicine. Everything is on the table,” Cuellar told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Secretary McDonald’s visit gives us another opportunity to see if we have the numbers. I think we are going to find something positive. Mark my words, one way or another we are going to get inpatient services here in the Valley. That, effectively, is a hospital.”

Cuellar said that while the number of Valley veterans that need to visit San Antonio for specialist care has reduced there is still a lot more to do.

“The number of veterans traveling to San Antonio has gone down, which means the VA is providing a lot more services here. That is good for the veterans because they do not have to travel four or five hours. At the same time we can provide a lot more services. If a local hospital wants to provide that kind of assistance, we need to take advantage of that. We need public-private partnerships,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar dismissed claims that the VA does not have the money to build a hospital in the Valley.

“There are ways to provide money, we just have to set certain priorities. The VA rehabbed a hospital in Denver, Colorado. It started out at $328 million and has now ballooned to $1.73 billion. So, there is one project that is costing close to $2 billion and we cannot provide services here in the Valley? We have done a lot more but we can do a little bit more to provide the inpatient services we all want. If we get creative we can provide a veterans’ hospital in the Valley. Then, the numbers going to San Antonio will drop a lot more.”

Congressman Vela said he is confident McDonald will do the right thing for Valley veterans.

“Ever since Secretary McDonald took over the VA we have seen improvement in a lot of the services they offer. But, we have a long way to go. He (McDonald) took over a system that was very, very, broken. It takes a comprehensive effort to change that. Having come from the private sector, he understands that if we are going to fix the situation it is going to take creativity. It is going to take partnerships. Every new idea that is out there needs to be listened to,” Rep. Vela said.

Ruben Cantu, past commander of Disabled Veterans of America, Chapter 121, said he was confident VA Secretary McDonald would look at establishing a veterans’ hospital in the Valley. Cantu participated in a roundtable discussion with McDonald and Cornyn at the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen.

“It went great,” Ruben Cantu said of the roundtable discussion. “I told my veterans that we made history today. This guy (McDonald) has shown that he knows there is a VA problem and he is here to help us. The VA is short of staff. They hire one and two leave. We need a VA hospital. We deserve a hospital.”

Emilio de los Santos, administrator of veterans’ affairs for Hidalgo County, said: “The most positive thing was that Governor Abbott was sitting here with Secretary McDonald. Senate Bill 1463 gives the State of Texas the authority to work with the federal government to build a VA hospital here. We need inpatient care. The VA is spending over $45 million in ER care with the contracts they have with the private hospitals. We have about 35 to 40 veterans in ER care every day. That is the average. We have proven we have the population to warrant a VA hospital.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story was taken at the McAllen Convention Center immediately following a roundtable discussion on veterans’ issues hosted by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce at midday on Monday. Pictured are Chris Rivera, CEO of Rio Grande Regional Hospital, Alonzo Cantu, co-founder of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, and Jim Darling, mayor of McAllen and counsel to DHR. The other images are from a meeting held at the Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic in Harlingen on Monday morning. Elected officials and healthcare leaders in the Rio Grande Valley were invited to attend. It was hosted by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and included VA Secretary Robert McDonald and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Editor’s Note: Reporter Mario Muñoz of RGV Public Radio 88 FM assisted with this story from Harlingen, Texas.