EDINBURG, RGV – Greg Abbott told state legislators and Rio Grande Valley leaders Thursday he wants to expand access to healthcare for those who are most at risk.

Abbott spoke at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance while attending a major check presentation by United Health Foundation. The group is giving UT Rio Grande Valley $2.8 million to help improve healthcare for two “at-risk” communities in the Valley under the Colonia Integrated Care Program.

The event at the conference center was part of the Valley Legislative Tour hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, the Valley’s regional chamber of commerce. Around 25 legislators are on the four-day tour.

“We need to expand access to improve healthcare especially for those who are most at risk. And that is why I am so pleased to be here to join in the celebration of the announcement by UnitedHealth Foundation and the granting of the $2.8 million that is going to the UT RGV medical school,” Abbott said.

In a news release issued later, Abbott said: “I commend the United Health Foundation for their generous support of UT Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine that will help improve the lives of those who rely on these services and programs. This innovative partnership will now have additional resources to help underserved communities in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Dr. Francisco Fernandez of UT RGV School of Medicine, and Don Langer, Dave Milich, and Tom Quirk of UnitedHealth.
Dr. Francisco Fernandez of UT RGV School of Medicine, and Don Langer, Dave Milich, and Tom Quirk of UnitedHealth.

In his speech, Abbott touched briefly on one of his healthcare-related goals. “I have already proposed some things in addition. One of those proposals will increase residency positions in our state so that doctors who are trained at UT RGV will be more likely stay and practice nearby,” he said.

Abbott was on stage to hear remarks by Francisco Fernandez, founding dean of the UT RGV School of Medicine, and Stephen Hemsley, CEO of United Health.

“We are delighted to partner with United Health Foundation to expand our work in our community to help improve lives,” Fernandez said. By supporting the Colonia Integrated Care Program and VIDAS, Fernandez said United Health Foundation is helping the UT RGV School of Medicine define itself. He said the school is “fully committed” to the health and well-being of the very communities from which the school hopes to draw a large number of students in the coming years.

VIDAS stands for Valley Inter-Professional Development And Services. The aim, Fernandez said, is to unite the Valley by building an integrated, inter-professional collaborative that will create a sustainable model for healthcare delivery in the most at-risk communities.

In a news release, United Health Foundation said the grant will help establish the Center for Colonia Integrated Care (CCIC), where project staff will “coordinate services in a team-based integrated model targeting two colonias through the use of two mobile health clinics and tele-health.”

Services to be provided by the project, United Health officials said, include screening, health education and promotion, health literacy, and improved dental and mental health services. “The project will also formalize training for and increase the number of trained promotoras, community health workers who link the health care system with the colonias through shared language, culture, and ethnicities.”

“United Health Foundation believes the UT Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, with its strong track record, can play an even more central role in developing innovative approaches to enhance people’s health and quality of life in this region,” said Tom Quirk, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of Texas.

United Health says the project was designed and will be implemented in coordination with the South Texas Integrated Team Collaborative for Health (STITCH). This group includes UT RGV School of Medicine, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, Texas A&M National Community Health Care Worker Training Center, Valley Baptist Hospital, the UT Brownsville nursing programs, the UT School of Public Health, UT Austin/UTPA Cooperative Pharmacy Program, and South Texas College.

Abbott was on his first official visit since being sworn into office as governor on Tuesday. In his remarks from the podium, Abbott said he wanted to shorten the distance between the Valley and Austin and that access to healthcare is a priority for him. A number of reporters wanted to ask Abbott if, given that he supports improving access to healthcare, he would expand Medicaid and draw down hundreds of millions of additional federal dollars for this purpose. However, Abbott’s press officers would only allow four questions at a brief press avail and ensured those questions were posed by TV reporters. The TV reporters were mainly focused on border security.

Later, during a healthcare panel discussion, representatives from local hospitals expressed their support for expanding Medicaid. “You have got to understand that about 40 percent of our population down here is uninsured, by far the highest percentage rate in the state of Texas,” said Manny Vela, CEO of Valley Baptist Health System in Harlingen. “From a semantics perspective, if we do not want to call it Medicaid expansion, let’s figure out something else to call it. The bottom line is there is a large percentage of our population that lacks that access to care. So, I would urge you to please be open minded,” Vela told the visiting legislators.

At the press avail, Abbott did take a question about relations with Mexico. “We look forward to a very productive relationship with Mexico. There are so many things we can work together on. One is, economically, look at what is going on in the energy sector in Mexico. With regard to trade, with regard to the educational exchange that we are going to see from things like UT RGV. So, I see a very promising future between Texas and Mexico,” Abbott said.

José Alberto Navarro Navarro was representing the Mexican Consulate’s Office in McAllen at the Edinburg event.

Abbott made the Valley a big part of his gubernatorial campaign in 2013 and 2014, kicking it off at El Pato in McAllen. He ensured that the Valley hosted its first live TV gubernatorial debate and he made the Valley his first visit after winning election last November. Now, two days after being sworn in he was back in the Valley. Abbott was asked by a reporter why he was placing so much emphasis on the region and what his action plan for it was.

“What I really want to focus on for the Valley is a couple of things. One is education. I know that if we can put into place my education plan it will be very uplifting for the children of this region and give everyone a better opportunity. Second I want to promote jobs. The reality is unemployment is higher in the Rio Grande Valley than some other places across Texas. My jobs program will focus on bringing more jobs to the Rio Grande Valley. Third, is we have to build more roads. The roads in the RGV are getting more packed. We need to make it easier for families to travel around the RGV.”