The Rio Grande Valley (RGV) is one of the fastest growing regions in the state and nation, and one of the most medically underserved.
Hidalgo County, for instance, has close to one million residents and 33 percent of those are under 65 years of age and lack health insurance. One in four residents of Hidalgo County and surrounding communities has diabetes, and Hidalgo County is one of the largest urban areas without a public hospital.
The demand for healthcare services in the RGV is simply outpacing the supply of doctors, nurses and facilities available to care for residents of the county.
A medical school in the RGV was something envisioned almost 70 years ago; the idea was not new, but it was the coming together of UT System, legislators, community partners and community hospitals that made it happen and just in time. A medical school allows the RGV to grow its own doctors, increase access to care, improve the current doctor-patient ratio and engage in much-needed research.
Additionally, once fully operational, the UTRGV School of Medicine is expected to generate millions of dollars each year in economic activity. We can expect thousands of high-paying jobs to be created locally in the biotechnology and research fields as firms look to develop new drug treatments and medical devices for improving patient care. Biotech firms will be attracted to the area similar to how San Antonio has over the years built a $30 billion economic health sector fueled by the medical school.
More than 200 physicians are expected to complete training at local hospitals each year and studies show that over 60 percent of physicians set up their practice where they train. The medical school will also support more pharmacy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and physician assistant training programs, which will add to the workforce and to the economic growth of the region.
And, as was recently reported, there is an upcoming research facility in McAllen that will house scientists and researchers that will not only result in medical gains, but also economic gains as grants continue to be secured to support research endeavors and grow UTRGV into an emerging research university.
Yes, there is much promise that lies ahead, but fulfilling the potential will take time, it will take strong partnerships and community support and it will take adequate and sustainable funding. Medical schools are very expensive to operate and over the past few weeks, there have been stories and op-eds in which various individuals have expressed their views on whether our medical school is sufficiently funded. At this point, it is not.
Thanks to the strong advocacy on the part of our Valley legislators, during the last legislative session we were able to secure $30 million over the biennium for operations. While that is a lot of money, it is not out of line with what medical schools receive in funding and it is not enough to fund all operational costs. In fact, consider this: the Texas Tech Paul L. Foster School of Medicine in El Paso received $48 million for start-up in its first biennium back in 2008-09 and has received more almost each biennium thereafter to the present day.
Start-up dollars are very important because a school does not begin to receive funding for students, known as formula funding, until the students are admitted and UTRGV did not admit students until this summer. Therefore, this next legislative session will be the first when these funds can be appropriated and because there are only 55 students this first year, the amount of funding will not be significant.
Additionally, while many medical schools and health science centers rely heavily on clinical revenues, i.e. fees paid to doctors of the medical school for medical services, to generate operational dollars, such a practice plan takes years to establish. UTRGV is working on a practice plan but one is not yet operational.
Some have commented that UT System should fund the medical school. UT System has, in fact, been generous in giving over $50 million to build the medical school’s education building and has also pledged $10 million a year for ten years, but UT System has 14 universities and health science centers in its system and the types of funding UT System is allowed to provide is limited.
For instance, PUF funds, which UTRGV can now receive, are only available for capital improvements, not operations. And, UTRGV has also not yet received private gifts like the $50 million gift that El Paso’s medical school received or the $100 million in gifts received by UT’s Dell Medical School.
Additionally, the Valley does not have a healthcare district that funds the medical school, in part, like the ones in numerous counties like El Paso, Travis, Bexar, Harris, Tarrant and other counties throughout the state. While the decision to create a healthcare district is one for the voters to decide, healthcare districts do provide a steady and reliable source of revenue to many medical schools and provide funds for the care of the county’s indigent.
A prime example is The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School, which receives $35 million a year from the healthcare district. So, at this time, the Valley’s medical school relies primarily on the State of Texas. The forecast for next session appears grim because there are many state needs and not enough funds. Even with a dedicated and supportive delegation, UTRGV cannot rely solely on the state to fund our operations. And, as was recently reported, while several local cities and Hidalgo County pledged support to the medical school via an MOU, the MOU is not binding and is not a sustainable and reliable funding source. Those are the facts.
UTRGV’s medical school belongs to all of us. Care is already being provided to young and old throughout the Rio Grande Valley by our medical residents. Researchers are hard at work to find cures for the illnesses that most plague us here in the Rio Grande Valley. As a community, we have shared in the pride of seeing our medical school open its doors and our Valley growing, but much remains to be done. All of us at UTRGV will continue working everyday to make the medical school the best it can be.