HARLINGEN, June 30 - The efforts of Rio Grande Valley veterans to bring a Veterans Affairs hospital to Harlingen have slowed down somewhat.
It seems like either the veterans are weary or tired of all the obstacles placed before them in their efforts. Or, they just think it may be a futile effort. Someone used the word "lethargic" to describe the present status of this movement.
The City of Harlingen stands to lose out the most if efforts to bring a VA hospital to the area fail. Veterans felt Harlingen had the best chance of getting a VA Full Service Medical Center because the Veterans Affairs was investing a lot of money in construction there. Those monies went into the construction of the building where the VA Health Clinic is located, next to the Regional Academic Health Center and now the new Surgical Center. New specialty services were scheduled to be added. The VA was putting its money in Harlingen.
Veterans agreed with the local congressional delegation that the Harlingen site would stand a better chance of getting a VA hospital. Veterans approached the City of Harlingen for support and received it by a majority vote of the city commission. Our congressional delegation continued submitting legislation for a full service medical center.
Strategic Capital Investment Plan
During this past congressional session, Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, submitted HB 1318, which in part asked for the expansion of the Harlingen Surgical Center by utilizing the VA’s Strategic Capital Investment Plan (SCIP). The bill per se did not pass or even make it out of committee but Cuellar managed to attach the bill to the Military and Veterans Affairs Construction and other Related Agencies appropriations bill, HB 2055. That bill passed the House and Senate and was sent to the President for his signature. The bill became law in December 2011. But, in a cruel blow to Valley veterans, the language of Cuellar’s 1318 was struck from HB 2055. Instead, the House submitted a House Committee Report to the VA asking that the department redouble its efforts in rural areas. The House Committee is important because it suggests or recommends that the VA take action on certain issues. The VA responded to this recommendation through revamping SCIP, which covers the next ten years. It is up to the City of Harlingen to take measures to lobby VA officials working on SCIP. There is no doubt SCIP is important in the battle to secure a VA hospital for the Valley. I believe the City of Harlingen must really make a concerted effort to get the expansion of the VA super clinic into a hospital for veterans. It takes more than talk, it takes action.
The favorite for the new Congressional District 34, Filemon Vela, Jr., addressed a question about the veterans’ hospital issue at a recent fundraiser in McAllen. According to the Rio Grande Guardian story, former Alamo Mayor Rudy Villarreal called on Vela, a Democrat, to support the push for a VA hospital for South Texas. Vela said he would. However, Vela said there is a much bigger issue than just the VA hospital at play. He said the VA seems “dysfunctional and bureaucratic." Vela should also look toward lobbying SCIP officials. The task of trying to fix the VA is humongous, so he should address the VA hospital for the Valley issue at this level. I have not seen the other three candidates vying for the Congressional District 34 seat (Democrat Denise Saenz Blanchard and Republicans Adela Garza and Jessica Puente Bradshaw) mention SCIP or for that matter comment in depth on what they would do to bring a VA hospital to the Valley. Yes, they say they do support a VA hospital for the region, but who doesn’t? It takes more than just voicing support.
Veterans should also look towards Congressional District 27, anchored in Corpus Christi, where Congressman Farenthold has been supportive of the VA hospital issue. Veterans need to keep him on the same page even though, due to redistricting, he will no longer represent the Valley if re-elected in November. He has the ear of the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Congressman Jeff Miller. That was clear when Farenthold was able to bring Miller to Corpus Christi. This is not an inconsiderable feat, considering Farenthold is a freshman.
In Congressional District 15, U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, again according to the Guardian, all of a sudden has gotten the idea of bringing President Barack Obama to the Valley. Hinojosa did not mention the VA hospital issue in the story but it is hoped he indeed will make notice of it if Obama accepts his invitation. Is this request genuine or is it in response to a request by Edinburg School Board member Robert Peña who, while attending a NALEO conference in Florida, met President Obama and asked him to consider visiting Valley? I mean, Hinojosa has had the opportunity to bring the POTUS to the Valley for the past three years. And, while he is at it, why doesn't Hinojosa work towards bringing Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to the Valley to discuss veterans’ health issues? The Valley must be the biggest area in the country for veterans that Shinseki has yet to visit.
Congressman Cuellar has, for some time, seemed the Valley veterans’ champion in Washington for securing a VA hospital. Even though he is based in Laredo he knows his veteran constituents there will also benefit from a VA hospital in the Valley. Cuellar has been very active in his efforts. I would urge him to follow through with those efforts by lobbying SCIP officials and ensuring that the Harlingen Surgical Center is expanded to a Full Service Medical Center. There is already talk about expanding SCIP’s ten year goals into 15 year plan and Cuellar must remain vigilant that the expansion of the Surgical Center in Harlingen is part of those plans.
In the effort to convince the state’s leaders that the Valley should receive a new medical school, state Sen. Eddie Lucio and state Rep. Eddie Lucio have not mentioned that a medical school will make it a lot easier for Valley veterans to land a VA hospital. That was one of the obstacles that veteran’s advocates had to deal with – that we did not have a medical school. In this regard, veterans hope that state Senator Juan Jesus Hinojosa does not continue his efforts to bring a medical school to the McAllen area via Texas A&M University. When the idea of a Regional Academic Health Center was first brought up, Harlingen was going to be the site for it. But once the politicos became involved, the pie was divided to satisfy each of them and the RAHC was split into three sites. The RAHC should have remained in Harlingen and not splintered out. The same thing could happen to the proposed medical school.
Veterans should not give up their efforts to bring a VA Full Service Medical Center to the Valley. The local VA has proven that one is desperately needed and that there are enough veterans to sustain its patient load. The RAHC and the proposed new Med School are essential toward veterans reaching their goal.
Arturo 'Treto' Garza, a resident of Harlingen, Texas, served as a Marine in the Vietnam War and is a former co-chair of the Veteran’s Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley. He now writes in an individual capacity and not on behalf of the Veteran’s Alliance. His Veteran's Voice column appears exclusively in the Guardian.