WESLACO, RGV – A new proposal has emerged to help the Rio Grande Valley’s uninsured and underinsured receive specialist treatment – sign a formal agreement to allow them to get secondary healthcare services in Mexico.

The idea came up during a brainstorming session at RGV Equal Voice Network’s recent Summit on Access to Specialty Health Care in the Rio Grande Valley, which was held at the Knapp Conference Center in Weslaco.

Elaine Hernandez, a member of Equal Voice’s health working group, was part of the group that came up with the proposal.

“We cannot allow people who lack the money to pay for health services to then just die because that is the only option. Not in this great country of ours. So, we need to find other solutions,” Hernandez said, in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian following the summit.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau that was presented at the summit, the percentage of Valley residents who have health insurance has not improved much over the decades. In 1999, 33 percent of Valley residents had no health insurance. By 2015 the uninsured figures for both Cameron and Hidalgo counties was 30 percent. The figure for those unable to afford to see a doctor was 32 percent in Hidalgo County and 25 percent in Cameron County.

In advance of the summit, the RGV Equal Voice health working group conducted a study of community clinics such as El Milagro, Nuestra Clinica Del Valle, Hope, and Su Clinicia Familiar.

There was general agreement among the clinics that “a lack of secondary care presented a significant challenge to patients.” The main reason given for patients not seeing a secondary care doctor was cost. Initial payments required by specialists or secondary care providers often range from $200 to $300, a draft white paper produced by Equal Voice states.

Hernandez said this information provided the backdrop for the discussion that took place at her table at the summit.

“We were invited to think outside the box, on what kind of solutions could be proposed to address this difficulty of accessing secondary healthcare for the uninsured and underinsured,” Hernandez said. “We are talking about those who cannot access services on this side.”

Hernandez she was horrified to hear stories of Valley residents having to hold barbecues to raise thousands of dollars for chemotherapy treatment.

“If we cannot serve the uninsured with secondary healthcare services, then can we help facilitate linkages with hospitals and healthcare professionals on the Mexican side of the border?” Hernandez asked.

“As a region that lives next door to Mexico, we have hospitals on both sides, we have doctors on both sides, we have many Americans that use the doctors, the dentists, the pharmacists across the border because they are less expensive.”

Hernandez noted that the U.S. and Mexico are already collaborating on some healthcare issues.

“We already have these agreements. We have a binational tuberculosis program, we have a binational firefighters program, and other agreements, trade and immigration agreements. How can we envision an opportunity where patients from this side of the border could use the services on the other side and perhaps have some subsidy to help pay for it, instead of paying the expensive costs on this side?”

Hernandez pointed to another item discussed during the brainstorming session at the Equal Voice summit.

“Is there be a possibility of certifying medical professionals from Mexico to actually come over and provide a type of Lone Star opportunity? Or an opportunity to come over here and work with healthcare professionals to reduce the costs of the secondary healthcare?”

Hernandez was referring to Operation Lone Star, a weeklong free medical program provided each summer by healthcare professionals connected to the military.

Asked who might look into the possibility of a formal arrangement with Mexico’s medical industry, Hernandez said:

“We do have an Office of Border Public Health and they do have a task force of professionals here on the border. Could that task force start looking into this? Right now, they are looking at infectious disease control, maternal and child health, tuberculosis. Could they begin to at least open a dialogue on how we can work collaboratively here at the border?”

Hernandez added that binational health councils also exist. “We have strong relationships with the ministries of health in Mexico and the Department of State Health Services here.”

Hernandez said there is no question the medical industry in many Mexican border communities, such as Reynosa, is robust.

“What we do know is there is high quality care in the medical services on the Mexican side. They have highly trained professionals on the Mexican side of the border who can easily meet the standards on this side, given the opportunity to be certified, to be able to cross the border and work here. The quality of the the healthcare profession is there.”

Hernandez said there are also some “very good” hospitals in Mexican border communities.

“The cost involved in seeking health treatments on the Mexican side is definitely less than it is on the U.S. side. So, just looking at those issues of quality and cost, and at the same time the lack of access to secondary care on this side because of poverty, because of a lack of insurance, I think that should open the door to this discussion,” she said.

“Do we let people die because they cannot access healthcare? I am for the humanitarian side. I think it is unbelievable that people have to die instead of accessing quality healthcare. Not in this country, not today.”

The Equal Voice’s white paper on “Gaps in Access to Specialty Healthcare” is currently being tweaked. Hernandez said it is possible the proposal on Mexico-based physicians playing a role in eliminating those gaps could make it into the white paper.

“Maybe we need to get some more stories from people who have gone over to Reynosa for cancer treatments, for dialysis, for a broken arm, and tell their stories of the trust they have in the medical system over there and how the costs were much less. That it was more affordable, and they were able to get the treatments they needed. That population, I don’t think we have interviewed yet.”

Asked for a wrap-up remark, Hernandez said:

“It is political will we are looking for. It is the will on the part of medical processionals to agree that they cannot attend to all the cases here. What are the other options? Cross-border insurance mechanisms, cross-border service providers, measuring the outcomes so the data is collected on both sides of the border.

“How do we build those cross border relations of trust, of mutual understanding? We have too many people dying because they are poor and cannot access the highest quality healthcare that we have here in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Editor’s Note: Elaine Hernandez is pictured wearing a red scarf in the main image accompanying the above news story. The photo was taken during the RGV Equal Voice Network’s recent Summit on Access to Specialty Health Care in the Rio Grande Valley.