BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Arguing that the border region has unique healthcare needs and concerned about an outbreak of Zika, state Sen. Eddie Lucio passed legislation earlier this year to set up a task force of border health officials.

On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appointed Lucio to that task force. The group is charged with submitting 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.

Senate Bill 1680 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.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr.

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.

“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.

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.

“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.

“Building on Texas’ first localized Zika case, where local county and health officials led the response for the state and nation, the task force allows local health officials, who are seeing and treating these illnesses, as well as coordinating the response, to communicate their first-hand insight in an official capacity to health officials in DSHS,” Lucio’s news release states.

Lucio added: “This Task Force will allow the border counties, from El Paso County to Cameron County, to participate in the plans, have a voice in the conversations, and take the lead in the responses they know their county desperately needs. This Task Force will bring the challenges and concerns of these regions in the international border with Mexico to the forefront and provide real problems in order for meaningful solutions to flourish.”

Commissioner John William Hellerstedt

The DSHS commissioner is Dr. John William Hellerstedt, MD. Hellerstedt earned his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Pittsburgh and completed his General Pediatrics Residency at the University of Texas-San Antonio Health Science Center. He moved to Austin in 1981 and spent 18 years working as a pediatrician and departmental chair at Austin Regional Clinic. Hellerstedt first entered public service as the Medical Director of the Bureau of Medicaid Managed Care and CHIP at the Texas Department of Health in 2000 and became the Medical Director for the Medicaid CHIP Division of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in 2001.

DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt

After seven years with the state government, he accepted a position as Vice President of Medical Affairs and Associate Chief Medical Officer at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas. He became the Associate Chief Medical Officer at Seton Family of Hospitals in 2009 and the Chief Medical Officer in 2013.

Hellerstedt is a member of the Texas Medical Association, Travis County Medical Society, and Texas Pediatric Society. His honors and awards include the 2007 Texas Pediatric Society Child Advocate of the Year. He has served the Central Texas community through his membership in and leadership of numerous committees at the Children’s Hospital of Austin, Brackenridge Hospital, the Seton Network, and Austin Independent School District.

When he took the helm of DSHS in January 2016, Hellerstedt said the goal of the agency was to achieve the vision of “A Healthy Texas” and fulfill its mission of improving the health, safety, and well-being of Texans through good stewardship of public resources, with a focus on core public health functions.

Like nowhere else in the state

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.