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Dr. Hector Garcia Perez (pictured center) was a Mexican-American physician, surgeon, World War II veteran, civil rights advocate, and founder of the American G.I. Forum. He was born in Llera, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on January 17, 1914 and died in Corpus Christi, Texas, on July 26, 1996. He awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President Reagan in 1984.

HARLINGEN, RGV – Former Congressman Chet Edwards says Dr. Hector P. Garcia, founder of the American GI Forum, would be proud of the work Congressman Rubén Hinojosa has done to help improve healthcare for veterans.

Edwards who chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies in the House of Representatives, is now an adviser to TriWest Healthcare Alliance.

Edwards has been part of the TriWest team that is working on a new community care program for veterans in South Texas. The program has been spearheaded by Congressman Hinojosa in conjunction with Valley Baptist Health System, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, the Veterans Health Administration, and TriWest.

“I am a son of South Texas. I was born in Corpus Christi. My father spent his last years in McAllen. He was a World War II naval aviator,” Edwards told the Rio Grande Guardian at Valley Baptist Health System in Harlingen.

“I grew up four houses down in Corpus from Dr. Hector Garcia, who, as you know, founded the GI Forum, to fight for rights for Hispanics. I will put it this way and I don’t say this lightly because Hector, as we called him, was a hero. Dr. Hector Garcia would be proud of what Congressman Hinojosa has done in carrying forth his legacy of seeing that Hispanic veterans who risked their lives for our country abroad, are treated with respect here at home. They deserve it.”

Edwards went on to say: “I think Dr. Garcia would be proud to see his life’s legacy being carried on by the next generation. My only regret is that he (Congressman Hinojosa) is retiring.”

Under the VA Community Care (VACC) program, health care for eligible veterans can be provided by non-VA hospitals when a VA Medical Center, clinic, or other federal facility is not available to furnish that care. TriWest administers two VACC programs – Patient-Centered Community Care (PC3) and Veterans Choice Program (VCP) – on behalf of the VA in 28 states including Texas.

With the support of President Obama, Congressman Hinojosa has pressed the VA and TriWest to work diligently with Valley Baptist Health System and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance to ensure the percentage of payment claims are reduced. The project is still in its early stages but thus far the signs are encouraging. A few months back the percentage of payment claims the VA was denying from Valley Baptist was in the high 50s. Now, it is down to about 11 percent.

Edwards said his perspective on the community care project is colored by his chairing of the VA appropriations committee in the U.S. House. “This is a great news story of Congressman Hinojosa bringing together TriWest, the VA, and Valley healthcare providers to make the VA Choice Act work for Valley veterans,” Edwards said. “What is really important about this – what it means to everyday veterans in the Valley – is that you (veterans) will not have to do a six- or seven-hour round trip to the San Antonio VA. You can get timely, quality, healthcare closer to home. That is going to mean a lot to Valley veterans.”

When the VA does not pay healthcare providers that look after veterans in a timely manner they tend to leave the network, thus reducing access to care. Edwards said he is pleased that the number of payment claims being rejected by the VA is diminishing under the community care project.

“The progress that has been made over the past two months because of the Congressman saying, we are going to solve these problems, we are going to make the Choice Act work for providers and our veterans, it is just amazing, compared to what I saw for 20 years,” Edwards said.

“I want to salute the Congressman. I want to salute the VA. Joe Enderle didn’t say this. He is in charge of all 50 states for VA claims. Because of the Congressman’s leadership he has come here twice in the last two months. That is how important helping Valley veterans and making this program work is to the VA. And, to Valley Baptist and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, the leadership you have shown is extraordinary.”

Joe Enderle is director of claims, adjudication and reimbursement for the Veterans Health Administration.

Edwards also singled out Art Rangel, Jr., system vice president for administration at Valley Baptist Health System, for praise. “Art, the progress that has been made in the last two months is very, very, significant.”

Edwards added: “Ultimately, this is not about paying the providers on time, this is about providing better quality healthcare to Valley veterans in a setting closer to home. That is the common goal. But, it would not have happened if it were not for your Congressman’s leadership. He has been saying, folks, everybody is going to come together.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on a new community care program for veterans being developed in Deep South Texas. Click here to read Part One. Reporter Ena Capucion contributed to this story from Edinburg, Texas.