AUSTIN, March 6 - Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia attended a Senate hearing today on legislation to create a new university and medical school for South Texas.
The legislation, Senate Bill 24, is authored by state Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Eddie Lucio, Judith Zaffirini, and Kel Seliger. Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo, chairs the Committee on Higher Education, which is where the bill was heard.
Urging passage of the legislation, Garcia pointed out that Hidalgo County, one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, is the only large county in Texas that does not have a medical school within 50 miles.
“The need for a South Texas medical school and the development of residency programs becomes urgent when one considers that the average age of a South Texas physician is 56 years, and we are only replacing one of every six retiring physicians,” Garcia said, in his prepared testimony for the higher education panel.
“The Texas Border Region has 50 percent less physicians per capita to serve its patients than similar communities throughout Texas. We have over 1,500 childbirths per month, which is the equivalent of two elementary schools or one new 5A school per month.”
The Guardian has posted in full the prepared testimony Garcia gave to the Senate committee. It is at the bottom of this story.
Last week, Garcia attended the state Capitol as part of Rio Grande Valley Day. At a meeting between Valley lawmakers and a delegation of Valley community, business and political leaders, Garcia said it is important to start educating Valley residents of the need to create a taxing district in order to help fund the medical school. State Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-La Joya, was in agreement that the public needs to be kept informed on the importance of a taxing district.
“We have a duty to inform people that we will need a taxing body. We need to start looking at how it (the medical school) is going to impact us,” Garcia told the meeting.
“I think it is important to educate the community that the medical school is coming,” Longoria told the meeting. “With this responsibility and this privilege we are going to have to bare some of the cost eventually down the road.”
Longoria pointed out that the UT System has agreed to pump $10 million a year into the medical school project for the next ten years. Longoria said more would be needed. He said that in discussions at the Capitol he has heard of the need to raise an additional $30 million to $40 million a year. “With this legislation, it is like putting a down payment on the car. We still have to make the monthly payments,” Longoria said.
Garcia said that from the discussions he has had, the state of Texas might be willing to fund $30 million out of the $40 million. “That still leaves us $10 million for us to pick up. We are trying to see if we can get the communities involved in trying to raise those dollars before the taxing district is actually created,” Garcia said.
Longoria said there would not be too much discussion of the taxing district during this legislative session but it could come up in the next one, two years from now.
Longoria, Garcia, San Juan Mayor San Juanita Sanchez, and Edinburg City Manager Ramiro Garza all agreed that the Valley has to stay united on the new university and medical school project.
“Cameron County cannot do this alone. Hidalgo County cannot do it alone. It is real important we work together as a partnership,” Longoria said. He pointed out that 70 percent of the tax base for the medical school district is likely to come from Hidalgo County, with 30 percent from Cameron County. He said agreement will have to be reached across county lines if the project is not to end up a “flop.”
Sanchez said she is pleased to learn that private entities are prepared to pitch in to help fund the medical school. “There has to be equitability,” said.
Garza agreed. He said the project “will only happen if everybody works together.”
Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia said Valley mayors have been meeting about the medical school project, as have city managers and economic development corporations.
Here, in full, are Garcia’s remarks at the Senate Committee on Higher Education hearing:
“Good Morning Chairman Seliger and Distinguished Members of the Committee
“My name is Ramon Garcia and I am the Hidalgo County Judge. I represent the seventh largest county in the State of Texas, with a population of over 797,000 people. We are one of the fastest growing counties in the state with over 36 percent growth in the last decade. We are regarded as one of the best places in the country to do business.
“We are on the cusp of attaining interstate designations on three of our local highways. There is a new Mexican “superhighway” that is being built in Mexico that will now allow produce companies to bypass New Mexico’s port of entry, and now transport through the ports of the Rio Grande Valley. We have six ports of entry that link the U.S. to Mexico in my county alone.
“We expect more growth and industry coming to our area. Many companies are looking to locate to our area due to our young and skilled workforce. However, one of the areas that companies and individuals look to when locating to a new city or job is access to good healthcare. That is an area that our region is lacking due to many factors including Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement rate cuts, and our high percentage of uninsured and underinsured residents.
“According to the Texas State Health Plan, there are major geographic inequities of health care practitioners across Texas. While there is a well-established pattern of physicians entering practice within 100 miles of where they train, Hidalgo County and Cameron County are both more than 200 miles from the nearest medical school. Among the 13 most populous counties in Texas, every county except for Hidalgo and Cameron is either home to a medical school, has one on the way, or is less than 50 miles away from a medical school.
“The need for a South Texas medical school and the development of residency programs becomes urgent when one considers that the average age of a South Texas physician is 56 years, and we are only replacing one of every six retiring physicians. The Texas Border Region has 50 percent less physicians per capita to serve its patients than similar communities throughout Texas. We have over 1,500 childbirths per month, which is the equivalent of two elementary schools or one new 5A school per month.
“We serve 8,000 indigent care patients a year, and another 8,000 apply and are not enrolled. Forty seven percent of our population is uninsured or underinsured, and less than a third has insurance. The development of a residency program will help provide care for this population.
“Hospitals that represent half of the top 12 largest taxpayers in Hidalgo County currently pay over $13 million in property taxes. Healthcare is vitally important to us in order to address the needs of our growing population. There is an economic study that suggests if we attained a medical school, there would be about 10,000 new jobs added to our area with an average salary of $60,000 annually which is double the regional average. This would be the greatest economic impact in the history of the Rio Grande Valley.
“Today, we stand at the same population level that San Antonio had when its medical school began to fully develop over 20 years ago. It has transformed their county and region, where now it has $21 billion annual economic impact for their county, where one of every six jobs is healthcare related. We believe that if given the same opportunity, we can achieve the same economic and social prosperity that San Antonio now has. I have met with all the mayors in Hidalgo County and they are committed to doing what is necessary to provide the incentives to locate a fair share of the medical school in Hidalgo County.
“In closing we ask for your full support and passage of Senate Bill 24. Thank you.”