RIO GRANDE CITY, RGV – The CEO of Starr County Memorial Hospital recalled the early days of the hospital at a ceremony to celebrate an affiliation agreement with DHR Health.

In particular, Thalia H. Muñoz praised the pioneering work of the late Dr. Mario Ramirez.

“The community was all in favor of this hospital district. Everybody knew we needed a hospital, everybody was willing to work together. It took many, many, hours and many, many, good people to get this process going,” Muñoz said, referring to local efforts to get the hospital up and running.

Muñoz noted that Ramirez had a small hospital in Roma but folded this to create Starr County Memorial Hospital in Rio Grande City after state lawmakers passed legislation during the 62nd legislature in 1972 to set up a hospital district for the county.  

Thalia H. Muñoz

Muñoz noted that Ramirez became county judge to make his dream of a countywide hospital district come true. The new hospital opened in 1975 and Muñoz started work there on day one, as director of nursing.

She noted that the hospital has expanded over the years and now has two rural clinics and an emergency ambulance service.

Interviewed by the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM following the ceremony, Muñoz spoke about Ramirez’s pivotal role in improving access to healthcare in South Texas.

“There was a small hospital, 20 beds, in Roma that belonged to Dr. Ramirez. It was privately owned. In those days, physicians could own hospitals. Later it changed to no physician ownership and now it is back to old times where physicians can own hospitals,” Muñoz said.

“Dr. Ramirez was local, born and raised in the community. He sacrificed so much to come back to work in his community, day and night. He was tireless, an excellent physician. His vision was to see a bigger hospital, with more services.”

Dr. Mario Ramirez

Medicare had come into play 1964, Muñoz noted, and the federal program required strict regulations.

“It was hard to adhere to the regulations in the Roma hospital because it was housed in an old building. Meeting the compliance requirements was very difficult. In order to be able to tap into Medicare and be in compliance, a new hospital had to be built. That was Dr. Ramirez’s vision and he succeeded.”

Asked how supportive the local community was, Muñoz said: “There really was a lot of support. I remember meetings, meetings and more meetings, many in the evening. Even looking at the floor plans that were developed. The reason it was built right in this locale was because this was the most central area for Starr County.”

After serving as director of nurses for a number of years, Muñoz was asked by the hospital district’s board of directors to study to become chief executive officer.

“After being out of school for 20 years I went back to school and enrolled in an external degree program at Trinity University and was able to accomplish my master’s degree in healthcare administration. It was at the same time my oldest son was starting college.”

She recalled there were 88 employees when the hospital opened. Now there are 278. 

Affiliation Agreement

Asked about the new affiliation agreement with DHR Health, Muñoz said STMH will retain its hospital district designation, with its board of directors maintaining local control.

“Local control has stayed exactly the same. This is the only way it was going to get done.”

Asked what the affiliation agreement will mean for Starr County residents, Muñoz said: 

“It means being able to recruit and bring in new services and specialty services that we really need. It is already starting to happen through this affiliation,” she said.

Dr. Ricardo Martinez

“We are entering into contractual agreements with DHR because we needed the networking, we needed to have some type of a partnership, just to keep up with the changes that are happening in healthcare. I think the community is excited.”

As for the future, Muñoz said she expects to see pulmonary and cardiology services available at SCMH as a result of the agreement with DHR Health.

Muñoz also dismissed rumors that she is about to retire. “I have a hard time now with a sciatic nerve. But, other than that, mentally, fortunately, very good.”

DHR Health issued a news release to announce the affiliation agreement with SCMH. It read in part:

“In 2015, DHR and SCMH began a collaboration that would increase the presence of surgical specialties in Starr County. Currently, DHR Health has three multi-specialty clinics in Starr County that physicians in the area of gastroenterology, cardiology, general surgery bariatrics, diabetes and endocrinology, otolaryngology, neurology, orthopedics, and urology. In addition to these services now being available in the arena, DHR Health and SCMH brought in more hospitalists and emergency medicine physicians that have now cared for over 8,000 residents in Starr County.”

The news release said it is the goal of both hospitals to become a “community health partner” in Starr County, providing residents with “education on disease prevention and management, and creating awareness about crucial health topics.”

The news release ended: “This affiliation between Starr County Memorial Hospital and DHR Health is just the beginning to an improved standard level of care and many opportunities to improve healthcare in the community.”

For Dr. Ricardo Martinez, a founding physician at DHR Health, the ceremony to celebrate the affiliation agreement with SCMH was a special day. 

“It is wonderful to come back home. My family is originally from Starr County. I was young when we moved but when the opportunity presented itself to come back I was all for it. Just a happy day,” Martinez told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

Asked why the agreement is important, Martinez said: “Just as we did at DHR, we like to build a healthcare network so patients do not have to leave the area. That is our goal in Starr County as well. We would like to keep as many people here at home as possible.”

In his remarks at the event, Martinez said DHR Health wants to help SCMH “transform” Starr County. Asked about this afterwards, he said:

“At DHR, our goal was to build a system where patients did not have to leave home. That is our goal here in Starr County as well. It is something every community deserves.  We would like to see the same thing happen here. We are all on board for that.”

In his remarks, SCMH President Jose A. Vazquez said that for the last three years, SCHM and DHR Health have been having conversations and negotiations on how to deliver quality healthcare to Starr County. 

“Today is an important day for Starr County. It marks the culmination of a big effort and a long process in seeking how to improve the health for our community,” Vazquez said.

Dr. Manish Singh, CEO of DHR Health, said it was a “privilege and an honor” for DHR to be in Starr County.