EDINBURG, RGV- Plans are in place for UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to visit the Rio Grande Valley next Tuesday for a groundbreaking ceremony for a new $54 million medical school building.

While in the Valley, Cigarroa will sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia, Mission Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas and Pharr Mayor Leopoldo “Polo,” Palacios.

“The groundbreaking will be a very special and tangible milestone in the journey to bring a medical school to South Texas,” said Karen Adler, assistant director of public affairs at the UT System.

“This vision is finally becoming a reality, and it’s because of the commitment of the UT System and the entire Rio Grande Valley community. We very much appreciate the support of the local governments and look forward to our continued partnership with them.”

The new medical school building is to be built next to the existing Regional Academic Health Center research building on the northern edge of the UT-Pan American campus in Edinburg. It will cover 88,000 square feet.

According to the UT System, the building will be devoted to teaching facilities that promote faculty and student interaction at the earliest stages of medical school. The building will include an auditorium, digital library, clinical skills center, preclinical laboratories and an anatomy teaching facility. It also will include multiple small classrooms and seminar rooms and other features to offer opportunities for small group problem solving, “flipped classrooms” and inter-professional educational experiences.

The building will make extensive use of online and distance learning as part of a region-wide medical school interacting with and complementing facilities at Harlingen and Brownsville as well as supporting continuing professional education in the region. Construction is scheduled to be completed in time to matriculate the first medical school class in the summer/fall of 2016.

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa's office says groundbreaking ceremony will be 'a very special and tangible milestone in the journey to bring a medical school to South Texas.'
Dr. Francisco Cigarroa’s office says groundbreaking ceremony will be ‘a very special and tangible milestone in the journey to bring a medical school to South Texas.’

The MOU Cigarroa will sign reflects the commitment of Hidalgo County and its four largest cities to support the medical school. The County, along with the cities of McAllen, Edinburg, Mission and Pharr all committed to help fund the UT-Rio Grande Valley medical school for the next ten years. If the voters of Hidalgo County approve the creation of a hospital taxing district in November, the hospital district will help pay for the medical school, not the County and cities. There also is a second MOU among the five entities that pertains to the creation of the Hidalgo County Hospital District.

Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia said the creation of a hospital district would be a “great day” for Hidalgo County. He said his job now, along with other city and county leaders, is to go out and “sell” the project to the voters of the county.

“I cannot imagine a bigger day for the Valley,” Garcia said. “Historically we have done with less than the rest of the state when our funds are provided from Austin and from Washington but we’ve bootstrapped ourselves and what helped us transform ourselves was NAFTA, 25 years ago. That has helped us come to where we are now, which is the fifth fastest growing region in the United States.”

Garcia said the Valley is now on the verge of “another big, big, boost,” referring to the UT-RGV Medical School.

“Twenty five years ago, San Antonio was in the same position we are today, population-wise. They got their medical school and the medical investment has transformed San Antonio into the second largest city in Texas and No. 7 in the United States. This is what I expect this investment today and in the future is going to bring to us. It is enormously important to our children, to our region, to this country,” Garcia said.

Garcia said he and other leaders in Edinburg took it upon themselves to collect the signatures to ensure the hospital district issue is on the Nov. 4 ballot. “We want voters to say yes to the creation of a taxing district. We are talking about eight cents per $100 valuation and three of those cents will go to the medical school. That is important for the medical school to be able to operate and run the way it needs to. The rest of the money will go to indigent health care.”

Garcia said the general public should know indigent healthcare is not going to be affected.

“Our local hospitals today provide over $400 million a year in un-reimbursed indigent healthcare. The County is providing about eight or nine million of that. If the hospital district is created the County will have about $8 million to $10 million out of its budget that is not going to have to be spent that way so they could do a rollback to balance what the public may have to pay on the hospital district. Those are tough decisions to make but I am thinking most of this can be accomplished with very little taxation to the taxpayers,” Garcia said.

Garcia said he has worked on “economic development and tomorrow’s income” for many years. He said this experience tells him the medical school will have a positive impact, with the taxes spread across a much broader base.

“What this is going to mean is that medical investment is going to come to us. The taxation that will be paid by the new businesses that come here, by the new jobs that will be created, the money that will be spent in our area, should more than offset the taxes that are going to be paid and if we have more money coming in another rollback could be possible in the future,” Garcia said.

Mayor Darling of McAllen, an attorney by profession, told the Guardian he has been thinking about what role he will play in promoting a “yes” vote on the hospital district issue. He said he would be very transparent with the public that he is employed as counsel by Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, which is slated to play a big role in the development of the medical school.

“I have been thinking about this and what role I am going to play. I am going to be transparent. I work for DHR. It is going to be the resident hospital in the whole system, I don’t think there’s any question about that, and so from a medical school standpoint it stands to benefit. It has also spent a lot of money, too,” Darling said.

“What I am going to say to voters is, I have a conflict because I work for DHR and here is the conflict: $10 million of the money collected by a hospital district goes to the medical school. DHR is not the medical school but it supports the medical school and the residency program.

“Having said that, as the mayor of the City of McAllen, I think the medical school is a game changer. I think we are going to have a role in the medical school, hopefully. That is what I am working towards. Hopefully, we will have an announcement someday that will relate to that.”

Darling said it would be “shortsighted” for a city leader in McAllen to say they would not help “sell” the hospital district just because a large part of the medical school is going to be built in Edinburg.

“It is like the rocket launching project in Brownsville. That is a game changer for all of us. It gives us great national publicity. We get such bad national publicity when they take pictures of a poor area that is run down and that is how they depict the Valley. Well, there are rockets that are going to go into the air in Brownsville and that will benefit all of us,” Darling said.

“There is a medical school that is going to be created that they are recruiting nationwide talent to that is going to benefit all of us. So, as the mayor of McAllen, I am happy to support the hospital district if it gets the medical school built, recognizing that I also work for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.”

Darling added that he worked well with County Judge Garcia on the drainage bond issue a few years ago. “I am willing to do whatever people want and as long as I am transparent and people realize I have a conflict. If I get criticized for that, that is okay. I have a conflict but I am also the mayor of McAllen. I hope people understand that in my heart, McAllen comes first.”