|AUSTIN, May 9 - Asked about the possibility of Texas A&M University System stepping in to build the Rio Grande Valley’s four-year medical school, a top hospital official did not rule it out.
The question was posed to Dr. Carlos Cardenas, interim CEO of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, following a Senate hearing at which concerns were raised about whether House Bill 1000, legislation which would create a University of Texas-run medical school, would get passed this legislative session.
Asked if Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, a good friend of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance co-founder Alonzo Cantu, could step in and build a medical school if HB 1000 craters, Cardenas told the Guardian: “This is the track we are on. We are committed to seeing this (a four year-year medical school) through to its logical conclusion. That being said, if this vehicle doesn’t work we will find the vehicle that does.”
Cardenas made a similar statement in testimony he gave to the Senate Committee on Higher Education on Wednesday.
It was state Sen. Judith Zaffirini who raised questions at the Senate hearing about what would happen if the Valley’s medical school legislation got derailed. The Laredo Democrat pointed out that as a result of a committee substitute being offered at the Senate hearing, the Senate version of HB 1000 is different to the House version. If the House does not accept the Senate version, the differences will have to be ironed out by a conference committee. Zaffirini pointed out that there are only a few weeks left in the session.
Interest in Texas A&M University System building a medical school in the Valley rose in February, 2012, when Sharp visited with elected officials and hospital officials at Pepper’s Restaurant in McAllen. At the time, reporters were told to expect a major announcement about A&M significantly increasing its footprint in the Valley. Since then, Sharp has visited the Valley on a number of occasions for private meetings with hospital executives, doctors and elected officials. Last month, the Guardian asked the A&M System press office if rumors about the System building a four-year medical school in McAllen were true. The reply was, no, they are not true.
Currently, there is division among elected officials in the Upper and Lower Valley over HB 1000 which, if not resolved, could potentially torpedo the legislation. The fear among some is that division in the Valley could lead legislators from other parts of Texas to drop their support for the bill. “It bothers me that division seems to be popping up,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, at Wednesday’s Senate hearing.
At the start of the session there was total unity on HB 1000. However, amendments from state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, the Senate sponsor of the legislation, have led some in the Lower Valley to testify against it. The amendments include striking a provision that a blue-ribbon committee be set up to provide advice to the UT System on the best location for the medical school. Hinojosa’s committee substitute also requires that first and second year students at the medical school be located primarily in Hidalgo County.
Among those to testify against Hinojosa’s committee substitute at the Senate hearing on Wednesday were Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell, former Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board member Bob Shepard, South Texas Medical Foundation President Randy Whittington, and Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce Chair-Elect Linda Treviño Burke. Burke said decisions should not be based on “who shouts the loudest.” The Harlingen chamber launched a petition against Hinojosa’s amendments that attracted 2,000 signatures in just 36 hours.
Among those testifying for Hinojosa’s committee substitute were Dr. Cardenas, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia, and McAllen Mayor-Elect and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance counsel Jim Darling.
After Wednesday’s Senate hearing ended, Judge Garcia told the Guardian about the financial package Hidalgo County was offering the UT System in order to ensure first and second year students at the medical school are taught in the Upper Valley.
“It is approximately a $110 million over a ten year period of time. Plus, we are trying to talk the City of Edinburg into contributing an additional 100 acres right next to Pan Am. That is a very significant commitment on our part. That is a practical way of looking at it. We want it to be a success. The county is going to chip in a million a year,” Judge Garcia said.
Asked about Hinojosa’s proposal to do away with a blue-ribbon committee, Judge Garcia said: “We have a representative form of government. These are the people we elected to do the right thing. If you need to hear from people who have a certain expertise you ask them to come and make their presentation but let this representative group make this decision.” Garcia added that Hidalgo County is “totally committed to building a medical school in South Texas.”
Mayor Boswell told the Guardian that while it is good Hidalgo County is agreeing to contribute financially to the medical school project, legislators should be aware that the City of Harlingen is already doing so.
“We want to keep stressing this point. Harlingen’s commitment is in the bank, it is in the ground, it is already there. It is $50 million and Valley Baptist System has actually signed affiliation agreements. They are under a five year affiliation agreement with UT already. They are going to create residency programs and they have already created residency programs,” Boswell said. He pointed out that additional psychiatric residency programs are being set up by Valley Baptist.
“Another $20 million over the next five years for these various residency programs – that is what Harlingen is putting in. The continual focus on this $100 million (from Hidalgo County); we welcome it because we want everybody want to come to the party but they are just now joining and catching up. The City of Harlingen has already pumped in $50 million alone. It is not a matter of in time. It is what we have already done.”
Asked why he opposed Hinojosa’s amended bill, Boswell said: “The University of Texas System must have the flexibility to design the programs, to deploy them in the right places to create the highest quality medical school/health science center that we could possibly create in the Rio Grande Valley. We have a 31-acre campus in Harlingen. It is not going anywhere. It is going to be an important part of the medical school, as we have always said.”
Boswell added that Senator Zaffirini was right to voice concerns about HB 1000 not getting passed this late in the session. “Senator Zaffirini said, ‘Hey guys, it is getting late. Everybody wants this bill to pass. We do not need to be creating obstacles that keep it from passing.’ The amendment, the substitution, is the new wrinkle. As Senator Zaffirini pointed out, if this bill goes to conference there may not be time to get it done. It is a concern.”
At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Hinojosa gave an exclusive interview to the Guardian about his committee substitute bill. The McAllen Democrat said it was not uncommon to amend bills late in the session. “This is a process and we have to manage the process. It is late in the session and we have to move the bill forward. It is still subject to negotiations. It is not uncommon. It is pretty normal. It happens on a regular basis up here in Austin. Bills are not the same as originally introduced. The House can always disagree with what we do and send it to conference. But the reality is, to be able to make sure this bill passes we have got to manage the process. This bill is too important to fail.”
Hinojosa was asked why his committee substitute is better than the original bill.
“No. 1, Hidalgo County has shown a tremendous commitment of $110 million, which they have pledged to raise over the next ten years. This is more money than the UT System Board of Regents pledged. No. 2, Harlingen is already geared for years three and four and we do not want to under-utilize their assets. We want to maximize those assets. For us, we in Hidalgo County need some assurances that we will have part of the medical school located in Hidalgo for our taxpayers to at least participate and invest money in the school.”
Asked if he was confident HB 1000 could still pass, Hinojosa said: “Without a doubt. Without a doubt. We want to give them (the UT System) the maximum flexibility. I am pretty confident that the language we have in the bill right now provides them with flexibility. Primarily, year one and year two in Hidalgo County and year three and year four primarily in Cameron County. They can move classes around, they can move students around. The reality is that this decision has to be made by the elected representatives, the legislators, us, and not the board of regents. We are not trying to micro-manage the board of regents. They can still set up a committee of experts to help, and run the school, or create the school.”
Asked to respond to Sen. Watson’s remarks about division among Valley leaders, Hinojosa said: “There may be disagreement but we all support the concept. We all support the regional approach. These things are not unusual this late in the legislative process. If you think we have disagreements, you should see the legislation coming out of Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. For us it is a pretty normal situation that we manage. I know for people who are not used to the process or familiar with the process they will get pretty much concerned and over-react. But it is just the way it is and we have to work with the different stakeholders and the different local public officials and the University of Texas. Chancellor Cigarroa has done a great job and shown great leadership.”
Testifying at the Senate hearing, Barry McBee, a vice-chancellor for the UT System, said that on balance the System preferred the original bill to Hinojosa’s substitute. However, he said the System would work on the language with Hinojosa. He later said much the same thing to the Guardian. “We prefer the concept embodied in the original bill. We also want the process to continue, however,” McBee said.
The Senate Committee on Higher Education voted Hinojosa’s substitute to HB 1000 out of committee on a 6-0 vote. It now goes to the full Senate.