McALLEN, RGV – At a meeting at which Futuro McAllen leaders gave their full backing to Texas A&M’s “Healthy South Texas 2025” initiative, an illustration was given on how big a task exists when it comes to educating the community.

The story was provided by Olga Gabriel, director of A&M’s School of Public Health in McAllen. Previously, Gabriel worked for the Children’s Defense Fund-Rio Grande Valley when the State of Texas rolled out the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Children’s Medicaid.

“We (Texas) rolled out last but we had the most children enrolling,” Gabriel said. Everyone was happy that CDF in the Valley was signing up so many families for CHIP and Children’s Medicaid, Gabriel explained. Then, she said, one of CDF’s funders asked a couple of important questions. How do you know if it is working? How do you know if families are using CHIP and Children’s Medicaid correctly and getting the maximum benefit out of the insurance programs?

Gabriel said she responded by saying that is research question. So, a two-year longitudinal study was undertaken. Gabriel said everyone was blown away by the results of the study.

“Valley families finally got insurance. They could go to the doctors and go and get their eyes examined. But, they did not know how to use insurance. They had never had insurance before. We started calling and asking them, are you taking your child for the wellness checkup? Did you take them for the vaccines because school is going to start, did you take them to get their teeth checked and their eyes checked?” Gabriel said.

“You know what we got? It blew us away. The parents would say, ‘I do not know if I have got food until the end of the week and you want me to take my child to a doctor’s checkup? I do not know if I can feed my family’.”

Futuro McAllen leaders recently discussed Texas A&M's 'Healthy South Texas 2025' initiative. They gave it their full backing.
Futuro McAllen leaders recently discussed Texas A&M’s ‘Healthy South Texas 2025’ initiative. They gave it their full backing.

Other parents would respond by saying “school is going to start and I do not have clothes for my kids.” Other parents would say, “We only have one vehicle and the tire has disintegrated. We cannot even get to work.”

Gabriel explained to Futuro McAllen leaders what CDF-RGV learned from the exercise. “We were over here asking them to take a wellness checkup when they were not even sick. We just sat back in our chairs and thought, oh my God, if you do not have their basic needs met your cannot focus on anything else.”

Asked how the experience learned by CDF-RGV relates to what Texas A&M wants to do with its ‘Healthy South Texas 2025’ initiative, Gabriel said: “We just assume that people know what they are eating is bad for them. But, they don’t know. We have to educate. Take asthma, which is one of the targets for Healthy South Texas 2025. People have carpet in their homes, they have stuffed animals, the chemicals Mom is using is a trigger for that kid’s asthma and before you know it that kid is back in the hospital. For us it is common sense but for many people, they do not have a clue.”

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp rolled out “Healthy South Texas 2025” a couple of weeks ago. He said it was an “unprecedented effort” aimed at reducing preventable diseases and their consequences in South Texas by 25 percent by the year 2025.

“We will leverage impactful research spanning agriculture and human health to better serve the state and nation,” Sharp said. “Just imagine, on one end of the county, our agriculture extension agent is talking to farmers and ranchers about growing healthy crops and livestock. On the other end of the county, our health science center personnel, utilizing the assets of our extension service, are talking to families about how to grow healthy children. This will keep people out of hospitals while saving billions of dollars.”

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was with Sharp when he announced the pilot project at news conferences in Austin, Corpus Christi, and McAllen. Hinojosa said that by focusing on the highest impact diseases in the region, including diabetes, asthma and infectious disease, Healthy South Texas 2025 would bring together experts from medicine, nursing, pharmacy, biomedical science, public health, architecture and extension to engage families, enhance education, promote behavior change, and improve quality of medical care and disease outcomes.

“I am honored to be here today, introducing an initiative that will have such an immediate and profound impact on the lives of all Texans, but especially South Texans with the pilot program. It makes sense to me that the Texas A&M System would use its renowned presence in the state’s 254 counties with agricultural extension and the health science center’s multi-campus presence in my native South Texas to improve overall health and wellness,” Hinojosa said.

In her remarks to Futuro McAllen leaders, Gabriel said A&M is one of the few institutions, if not the only one, that could, working with community partners, pull off such an ambitious goal.

“We have all these wonderful components, the College of Medicine, the College of Pharmacy, the College of Nursing, the College of Public Health. We are bringing that all together. We have got super, visionary, people at the top, starting with Chancellor Sharp, and Brett Giroir, the CEO of Texas A&M Health Science Center,” Gabriel said.

“Dr. Giroir is incredible. So is Dr. Scott Lillibridge. Both of them are medical doctors. They have seen and done a lot. The vision they have is incredible, bringing us all together in this concerted, unprecedented effort.”

Gabriel said a lot of institutions are focusing on South Texas right now and none more so than Texas A&M.

“I think there is a lot we can do for the health of the community. When we say public health, it is not just the person and are they breathing okay. It is the water and the air quality. We have a lot of children with asthma. Dengue Fever is creeping in. We also have parasitic illnesses. This is our concerted effort to really make a difference, to improve the health of South Texans. And, the beauty of it is it can be replicated across the state.”

Gabriel added that Texas A&M University System will likely be asking the Legislature for an additional $7 million a year to fund the pilot project. “It is going to save all of us as taxpayers a lot of money. It is going to cost $7 million a year but save $2.5 billion in health care costs.”

Nedra Kinerk, president of Futuro McAllen, was full of praise for Texas A&M’s “Healthy South Texas 2025” initiative.

“The great thing is the infrastructure is already here. Coordinating these various institutions will save us a bunch of money, plus effectuate a much healthier population. Our population matches the big cities across Texas but we how many universities do they have? The answer is a lot more than us. We need more universities down here. We need Texas A&M. We will do all we can to help them,” Kinerk said.