AUSTIN, Texas – State Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra has been appointed to the newly-established Task Force of Border Health Officials by Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.

The task force was set up by the Legislature earlier this year. Senate Bill 1680, authored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., requires the task force to submit recommendations to the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) commissioner for short-term and long-term plans to address top border health issues, including diabetes, obesity, and communicable diseases, such as Zika and tuberculosis.

Lucio’s bill also allows the task force to collaborate and cooperate with Mexican counterparts to improve border health. It requires the composition of the task force to include health department directors from each county along the border and each municipality in the border region that has a sister city in Mexico. Among those so far appointed to the task force are Lucio and Laredo Health Director Hector F. Gonzalez.

“I’m truly honored to be appointed to the Task Force of Border Health Officials by Speaker Straus,” said Rep. Guerra, D-McAllen. “As a member of the House Public Health committee and lifelong border resident, I know very well the unique health issues that our region faces. Last session, I passed legislation that will provide more resources to aid DSHS in tracking, studying, and preventing the spread of the Zika virus. I look forward to working with Texas border health officials in finding solutions to improve the livelihood of our communities.”

Also on the task force will be two ex-officio nonvoting members who are members of the legislature, one appointed by the lieutenant governor and appointed by the speaker of the house of representatives. The task force can also have additional members appointed by the commissioner. The commissioner designates a chair and vice chair of the task force from among the task force members.

Sen. Lucio said SB 1680 came about following “critical meetings” with local health officials following the localized Zika outbreaks that occurred in Cameron County in late 2016.

“I am honored to be joining the local health experts from our border counties in this extraordinary endeavor as we address pressing health impediments that plague the most vulnerable and susceptible populations in the state,” Lucio, D-Brownsville, said, in a news release.

“This is a golden opportunity for our border communities to be able to inform our leaders in Austin of the public health problems and health impediments that we see on a daily basis,” Lucio said. “We will be reporting on numerous important factors such as those that impede access to health care, including socioeconomic conditions, linguistic and cultural barriers, and lack of health insurance.”

Health directors along the border have long argued for clear communication and coordination between the DSHS and local health departments in border counties. They say this would better assist the healthcare needs of border residents and help reduce any further potential public health risks.

The Task Force of Border Health Officials legislation was referenced at a recent Texas Border Coalition meeting Laredo, Elizabeth Lippincott, a public policy analyst for Vianovo who assists the TBC, predicted that the task force would turn out to be “meaningful.”

Legislation analysts at the state Capitol produced this write-up about SB 1680 while the 85th legislative session was underway:

“Concerned public health officials contend that the public health along the Texas-Mexico border is like nowhere else in the state. Due to its location, the border region is next to a country that handles public health risks differently than the manner by which Texas handles them. Additionally, health officials contend that high unemployment, extreme poverty, complex barriers to accessing health care, and low per capita income make addressing the public health and health care needs of the border region different and even more challenging than any other region in Texas.

“Unfortunately, the border region is disproportionately affected by health problems such as a high propensity of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. In fact, the proximity to Mexico leads to a higher risk to communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, the Zika virus, and the Chikungunya virus; and, as a result, makes the work of state officials even more difficult.

“In order to address the lack of health infrastructure, and these unique challenges, concerned stakeholders believe that there is a need for increased public awareness, which could be greatly assisted by maximizing local resources and strengthening collaborations between local and state health officials.

“To address these concerns, S.B. 1680 calls for a specialized task force focused on border issues to assist the Texas Department of State Health Services. Local public health departments would empower the state to become familiarized with and could better address the countless health issues that are home to this region.”

Other issues the task force may consider, according to legislation analysts, include “barriers to accessing health care; certain health problems affecting the region; certain factors that impede access to health care; surveillance and tracking of communicable diseases, environmental factors, and other factors negatively influencing health; standardization of data to ensure compatibility with data collected by border states on both sides of the international border with Mexico; public health infrastructure that includes education and research institutions to train culturally competent health care providers; establishing local and regional public health programs that build on local resources and maximize the use of public dollars to address the needs of the indigent population; and collaboration and cooperation with Mexican counterparts of the task force at the state and federal level, and collaboration with federal counterparts in the United States.”

The task force will meet at least quarterly. These meetings can be through conference calls and video-conference.

Short-Term and Long-Term Border Health Plans

Lucio’s legislation requires the task force to make recommendations to the commissioner for short-term and long-term border health improvement plans. The short-term plan must identify health objectives proposed to be accomplished before the fourth anniversary of the date the plan is adopted. The long-term plan must identify health objectives proposed to be accomplished before the ninth anniversary of the date the plan is adopted.

The DSHS commissioner must review the task force’s recommendations and, based on those recommendations, recommend short-term and long-term border health improvement plans to the executive commissioner of the Health and Human Services Commission, identifying specific health objectives that are authorized to be implemented under existing law.