AUSTIN, Texas – Doctors Hospital at Renaissance CEO Israel Rocha says his research shows Hidalgo County to be the largest metropolitan area in the country without a hospital district.
Rocha testified at the state Capitol in support of legislation that will provide greater protection for voters should a hospital or healthcare district be established. The legislation, Senate Bill 626, authored by state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, was heard by the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations.
“Our hospital is the largest provider of indigent care in Hidalgo County. We provide over $100 million a year in uncompensated care costs for our region. We do believe, and from the statistics we looked at, we are the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a hospital district,” Rocha testified.
“I think it has been a journey getting there. The Valley is an emerging economy that has grown very quickly… and as such is starting to gain access to the tools that most other metropolitan areas have had for a while.”
In a referendum last November, voters in Hidalgo County narrowly rejected plans to set up a hospital district in their county. Many analysts believe voters did not like the fact that a hospital district could have set a tax rate up to 75 cents per $100 property valuation. Hinojosa’s bill sets the cap at 25 cents. It also changes the name from hospital district to healthcare district.
“On the election, I think there were over 60,000 votes cast and it lost by about one percent. It was a tight election but I commend the senators for helping to do what this bill does which is, as Representative Guerra said, is add more protection for the taxpayers.”
Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, D-McAllen, is carrying a companion bill to SB 626 in the Texas House. Guerra was on the same panel as Rocha in testifying for Sen. Hinojosa’s legislation.
In his testimony, Rocha explained the reason for the name change. “What it really does is provide the local support for the indigent care program of Hidalgo County. That is a mandate every county must do. That indigent care, over 50 percent of the resources go to doctors, pharmacists, medications, and support for the indigent care program. I think when it was labeled a hospital district there was some confusion, that this was just helping hospitals, as opposed to helping patients. Of the resources of that district, a large amount goes to physicians and for the care of products for the patients. As a healthcare district, it is more representative of what it does.”
Rocha concluded his testimony by saying: “We have always been very strong supporters of creating more support and resources for the care of indigents in our community and for making sure we have a robust healthcare service. But, we also have strong support for the voice of the voters to be able to be protected and that is what this bill does. It makes sure that you cannot go above 25 cents without having to go back to the electorate for permission. It has protections for a rollback.”
Also testifying for SB 626 was Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia. Garcia said a healthcare district will “vastly improve” the health outcomes of Hidalgo County by offsetting the high cost of indigent healthcare and cover the community’s healthcare needs for both the insured and uninsured.
Garcia said the legislation is also “extremely important” because it provides a stable source of revenue for the new UT Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.
“Hidalgo County is one of the fastest growing areas in the state but it is also one of the most medically underserved areas in our state. Hidalgo County has the largest percentage of residents without health insurance in the nation and that would be 38 percent. The population is the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the nation. In Hidalgo County there is a severe shortage of doctors, limited resources and limited access to care,” Garcia said.
“On top of all this, we have a number of chronic conditions that exist such as diabetes and cervical cancer that affect the population there disproportionately compared to other areas of the state. This bill is an investment that will bring much needed federal matching dollars to our local economy through the 1115 Waiver. We are apparently leaving millions of dollars on the table that are critical for growing the new medical school and this new medical school, as has been mentioned, will help train future doctors and bring us to a position as we saw historically in San Antonio 30 years ago when they got their medical school and they are now the second largest in the state and seventh in the nation. We just ask to approve this legislation so we can have that equal opportunity.”
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling also testified in support of SB 626.
“Originally, when I moved to McAllen in 1978 we had five city hospitals that were the hospital providers for our whole county. Over the years the city hospitals disappeared and we have no city hospitals,” Darling said. “We are a latecomer for a county our size, probably the largest county in the country that does not have some sort of supported hospital district with tax-based funding for health services.”
Darling said there are a number of safeguards in Hinojosa’s legislation to protect the interests of taxpayers. He said a newly imposed 25 cents cap could not be lifted without voter approval. He also said the healthcare district’s budget and tax rate would have to be ratified by Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court, thus bringing another layer of accountability.
Darling added that the four largest cities in Hidalgo County – McAllen, Edinburg, Mission and Pharr – had agreed to fund the UT RGV School of Medicine because UT could not it alone. Darling said the City of McAllen has committed to spending $2 million a year on the med school. However, he said if the healthcare district is created that obligation would be removed. “It would displace the obligation of our cities and make it a countywide effort,” Darling said.