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McALLEN, RGV – The creation of a new medical school could be a breakthrough in the creation of a veteran’s hospital in the Rio Grande Valley, according to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald.

Making his comments to reporters during his first ever trip to the Valley, McDonald said UT-RGV’s future medical school is another reason to take a closer look at establishing the long awaited VA facility that veterans have been demanding for decades.

“The first message was about improving access to care and continue to improve access to care. We have made progress with that in the Valley, but we have more progress to make,” McDonald said, referring to the feedback he received from local veterans. “In my opinion, the creation of a medical school here was a breakthrough. It is another reason to take a close look about that. We have the Choice Act, which allowing us to partner with community resources.

Felix Rodriguez
Felix Rodriguez

“We also heard about the need for inpatient services and we talked with our partners over breakfast this morning about inpatient partnerships,” he said. “Some people in the veterans groups have asked me to take another look at inpatient services. These are the kinds of things we are all looking at.”

McDonald took a whirlwind trip through the Rio Grande Valley on Sept. 15 that began at the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, and culminated with a press conference at Veterans War Memorial in McAllen. That conference was followed immediately by a luncheon at McAllen Convention Center, where he participated in a question and answer session with veterans and invited guests.

Present with McDonald during the trip was Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, US. Reps. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo and retired Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.

“Some of my kids names are up on those marble walls behind me. They were my soldiers in Iraq. I lost 843 of them in battle,” said Sanchez, pointing to McAllen’s war memorial. Sanchez was the commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq between June 2003 and June 2004.

“You all made that same commitment. You didn’t want to die, but you were willing to die for this country and our freedoms,” Sanchez told veterans. “This delegation is here today to ensure that we honor those commitments made to you, giving you good healthcare and to make sure you get the benefits that you fought so hard for when you were in uniform.”

During the trip, McDonald outlined a five-step approach he is using to transform the VA. They include improving the veteran experience, improving the employee experience, improving internal support services, and installing a culture of improvement in order to facilitate outcomes for veterans.

For the Valley, that means further improving services or an estimated 200,000 veterans who routinely travel outside the region for healthcare, often to their own detriment.

“Any time we have someone waiting longer than 30 days, that’s too long. Access to care is important,” McDonald said.

Unconfirmed estimates by veterans at the luncheon say it is the first time a sitting VA secretary has visited the Valley in more than 30 years.

In 2007, Bob Filner then-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs visited with Valley veterans followed by Chet Edwards in 2008. Edwards at the time was chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies.

“We have been promised too many times, but nothing has happened yet (but) through our advocacy, we are now seeing the fruits of our labor,” said Hidalgo County Veterans Services Officer, Felix Rodriguez.

“It’s about time he (McDonald) came down here to listen to the plight of our veterans,” Rodriguez said. “Let’s hope something positive and concrete is going to come from this. We are looking for things we earned, in the form of health and benefits.”

A few years ago the Valley became independent from San Antonio’s VA healthcare system, and how now shifted to the Valley Coastal Bend Healthcare System, which aims to cut the distance of travel for veterans in need of care.

With the new UT-RGV medical school on the horizon, Rodriguez says he has no doubt that veterans will have their hospital, or at least a form of inpatient care within the next three years.

“Initially, we established short term and long term goals. We have met those short term goals, and we are close to our long term goal, which is obtaining a veterans hospital in the Valley,” Rodriguez said. “With the school of medicine now, I have no doubt that we should see something that looks like a veterans hospital, even a medical wing in the new medical school within the next three years.”

“Initially, we established short term and long term goals. We have met those short term goals, and we are close to our long term goal, which is obtaining a veterans hospital in the Valley,” Rodriguez said. “With the school of medicine now, I have no doubt that we should see something that looks like a veterans hospital, even a medical wing in the new medical school within the next three years.”