BROWNSVILLE, RGV – As state legislators file legislation in Austin to help Rio Grande Valley veterans secure healthcare services at the new UT-RGV School of Medicine, members of Congress say they want the VA secretary to visit the region.

U.S. Representatives Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, and Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, sent a letter last week to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald. They are inviting him to South Texas to meet with veterans and to tour a VA Health Care Center in the Rio Grande Valley.

The letter (a copy of which is posted at the end of this story) from the two U.S. representatives is similar to one sent last October by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who also wants McDonald to visit the Valley.

“It is critical that VA Secretary McDonald visit the Rio Grande Valley so he can observe firsthand how our veterans are being served and what more must be done to fulfill our obligation to care for veterans and their families,” Vela said, in a news release.

“While the VA has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., the mission of the agency is to serve veterans in South Texas and throughout the nation. As the VA works to restructure and improve the agency, the VA Secretary and other leaders must understand the true needs of our veterans.”

Congressman Hinojosa concurred.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald has been invited to visit the RGV by Sen. John Cornyn and Reps. Filemon Vela and Rubén Hinojosa.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald has been invited to visit the RGV by Sen. John Cornyn and Reps. Filemon Vela and Rubén Hinojosa.

“I believe the best way a person can fully understand the needs of another person is by meeting them face to face and to have a conversation with them about their concerns and their needs. This is why I think it is very important that VA Secretary McDonald visit the Rio Grande Valley and meet with our veterans who have served our country so honorably,” Hinojosa said, in a news release.

“No one can better describe the challenges veterans face in accessing healthcare than the veterans themselves. For too long now they have waited for a full service hospital to treat our ever-growing number of proud veterans. We are looking forward to meeting with Secretary McDonald as soon as possible.”

Cornyn sent his letter to McDonald on Oct. 24.

“As you work to implement the changes set forth in the recently enacted Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, it is imperative that you garner a clear understanding of the challenges facing veterans in places like the Rio Grande Valley and other regions that lack access to adequate inpatient care in VA facilities,” Cornyn wrote.

“There has been a demonstrated need for VA inpatient care in the region, but the VA has thus far not stepped up to address this problem. I invite you to come to Texas and visit this important region to hear firsthand from these veterans about the need for VA inpatient health care services.”

Cornyn pointed out that he has introduced legislation to direct the VA Secretary to put a full-service inpatient health care facility in the South Texas VA Health Care Center in Harlingen, Texas. The bill, Cornyn’s Office said, would “require the VA Secretary to include in the VA’s annual Strategic Capital Investment Planning process the resources necessary to expand the existing facility to provide inpatient capability for 50 beds, an urgent care center, and the capability to provide a full range of services to meet the needs of women veterans.”

Among the state legislators looking at ways to make the UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine available to Valley veterans are state Sen. Juan Hinojosa and state Reps. Sergio Muñoz, Armando “Mando” Martinez, Terry Canales and Eddie Lucio, III.

Muñoz told the Rio Grande Guardian that he, Senator Hinojosa and other state lawmakers are proposing the creation of the “Veterans Healthcare System for the Rio Grande Valley.” Muñoz said it would be based at the new UT-RGV School of Medicine and spread among Valley communities through contracted healthcare facilities.

“Veteran’s healthcare issues have been a source of passionate concern from our Valley veterans since WWII era veterans began to have access to care problems a generation or two ago,” Muñoz said. “We must be proactive and get things done through partnerships and regionalism. Our delegation is ready to take on the challenge of doing more for our veterans and work collaboratively to bring the right level of healthcare to the men and women who have served our country.”

Muñoz said nearly 50,000 veterans call the Valley region home. “Many of them are going without much-needed healthcare services. The current Valley veteran’s healthcare system has been besieged and continues to struggle with inefficiencies and long wait times,” Muñoz told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Muñoz said the goal of the Valley legislative delegation is to “attack the existing access to care problems” by creating a system of care that will “eliminate the need for veterans to travel to San Antonio or Houston for inpatient or specialty care.”

Muñoz said the priority will be to focus on mental healthcare and orthopedics. “These are the areas that experts which we have convened into a working group, have told us the greatest need is. We have also reached out to the Texas A&M University System, which has expressed a willingness to contribute to the proposed system with resources that could help combat mental health and other issues.”

Valley veterans groups have been pushing for a fully-fledged VA hospital to be built in their region for years. Their efforts have included marches from the Valley to the Audie Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio. Placido Salazar, a Vietnam War veteran and veterans’ legislative liaison with the Dr. Hector P. Garcia American GI Forum, has met with then-UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to push for the designation of a wing at the UT-RGV School of Medicine as an  interim emergency room with in- and out-patient beds.

“Presently, our Valley veterans have to travel to Audie Murphy VA hospital in San Antonio, a round-trip of more than 500 miles, more than ten hours on the road. Too many of our Valley veterans have suffered greatly without the much-needed medical care and died an early age. We feel that our country can – and should do better for those who faithfully served our country,” Salazar told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Salazar said that while a twice-a-week van is available to take Valley veterans to the Audie Murphy facility, too many are physically unable to avail themselves. “Either due to age, advanced diabetes with kidney problems, incontinence or, in some cases, they are just too weak to fend for themselves, without the aid of one of their loved ones,” Salazar said.

Salazar said some of those Valley veterans who are financially and physically able find it necessary to travel by private auto. “That entails a family member having to take the day off from work to start the trip to San Antonio, just past midnight in order to be at Audie by 7:00 a.m., usually fasting – and sometimes waiting until mid-afternoon to be seen by a doctor. They usually are then able to start the return trip late in the afternoon, arriving in The Valley close to midnight – unless the VA doctor finds it necessary to admit the veteran. Our nation can do better than this.”

Here is a reprint of the letter sent to Secretary McDonald by Congressmen Vela and Hinojosa:

January 7, 2015
Honorable Robert McDonald
Secretary
Department of Veterans’ Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20420

Dear Secretary McDonald:

As a new year begins, we wanted to commend you on the work you have been doing to make the Department of Veterans’ Affairs more responsive to the needs of our veterans. However, we are writing on behalf of the thousands of veterans of Deep South Texas who continue to experience difficulties in accessing health care and in benefits processing. These veterans proudly served their country and they deserve to have the possible experience with the VA. Deep South Texas is one of the fastest growing regions of the country and the migration of retired veterans either permanently or for good portions of the year will continue to significantly contribute to this population explosion.

The people of South Texas are very patriotic. We have sent thousands of our sons and daughters to serve in all branches of the military and over 47 have lost their lives in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, our region has also been underserved by the Veterans’ Administration although the situation has been improving. While we appreciate the new facilities that have opened, we still need a full service hospital to fully address the needs of our veterans.

In this regard, we respectfully request that you meet with us in Washington and also come to South Texas and hear first-hand from our veterans the difficulties they face. Our Chiefs of Staff, Connie Humphrey (202-225-2531) and Perry Finney Brody (202-225-9901), would be glad to work with you staff on making any necessary arrangements. We thank you for your consideration of this request and look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

Rubén Hinojosa, Member of Congress
Filemon Vela, Member of Congress