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WESLACO, RGV – Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp and state Sen. Juan Hinojosa are to hold a news conference in Weslaco on Wednesday to announce the launch of Texas A&M’s eagerly-awaited Healthy South Texas initiative.

A&M believes its first-of-a-kind initiative can reduce preventable diseases and their consequences in South Texas by 25 percent by the year 2025. Focusing on the highest impact diseases in the region, including diabetes, asthma and infectious disease, Texas A&M says the Healthy South Texas initiative will bring together experts from medicine, nursing, pharmacy, biomedical science, public health, architecture and extension “to engage families, enhance education, promote behavior change, and improve quality of medical care and disease outcomes.”

Dr. Scott Lillibridge
Dr. Scott Lillibridge

Sharp and Hinojosa first announced the Healthy Texas initiative in June, 2014, and said a pilot project would be conducted in a 26-county region of South Texas. Wednesday’s news conference will focus on the pilot project.

“Leveraging the expertise of the Texas A&M Health Science Center with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s statewide agricultural extension reach, the effort will promote prevention at the most local level of the community, empowering patients to take control of their own health and wellness,” a news advisory from the Texas A&M University System states. “Healthy South Texas will impact the region for generations to come and will serve as a model for improved public health across the state and nation.”

The news conference will take place at the AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Weslaco on Wednesday, starting at 2 p.m. In addition to Sharp and Hinojosa, AgriLife extension agents will be at the news conference, along with Dr. Scott Lillibridge, director of health initiatives at the Texas A&M University System and professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, and Susan Ballabina, associate director of program development at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

Healthy Texas Initiative

Sharp and Hinojosa outlined the “Healthy Texas Initiative” at news conferences in Austin, Corpus Christi and McAllen on June 17, 2014. They called it a land grant approach to healthier lives and said the initiative was part of the newly created Texas A&M Institute for Public Health Improvement.

At a news conference at McAllen Public Library in June, 2014, Sharp said that just as A&M AgriLife Extension agents can and do advise 200 to 300 farmers and ranchers in Hidalgo County on how to grow better crops and healthier cattle, so A&M Health Science Center staff could advise 200 to 300 mothers in Hidalgo County on how to better nurture their children. Sharp said such a policy could “short-circuit” trips to the emergency room for ailments allied to diabetes, asthma and infectious diseases.

“We can do this because we have got all of these assets, all of these offices, all of these (AgriLife) people in 254 counties. Let’s use them in conjunction with the Health Science Center and let’s prevent people from going to the hospital to begin with,” Sharp said.

“Instead of using AgriLife research for the purpose of farmers and ranchers, we use the A&M Dental School, the A&M Medical School, the A&M Pharmacy School, the School of Nursing and all of the assets that we have there and all the research we have in the Medical Center in Houston and we take that directly to the families of Texas.”

Sharp said what the Healthy Texas Initiative was initially all about was the Healthy South Texas Initiative.

“The pilot project is 26-counties running from Cameron to Victoria, along the Coastal Bend, where the incidence of diabetes is high. We believe and we are absolutely committed to reducing the incidence of those diseases and the expenditures on those diseases by 25 percent by the year 2025,” Sharp said.

“If you do that the expenditure will be $7.5 million a year. If you do that the ten-year benefit to the State of Texas, not to mention to the families, is $2.5 billion. I believe that before this is over with we will teach the rest of the country how to use their land grant institutions to take preventative care directly to the families. It will do great things for the Texas budget as well because the No. 1 driver of the Texas budget is Medicaid costs.”

“We will leverage impactful research spanning agriculture and human health to better serve the state and nation,” said Sharp, at a news conference at McAllen Public Library. “Just imagine, on one end of the county, our agriculture extension agent is talking to farmers and ranchers about growing healthy crops and livestock. On the other end of the county, our health science center personnel, utilizing the assets of our extension service, are talking to families about how to grow healthy children. This will keep people out of hospitals while saving billions of dollars.”

Sharp said the Healthy Texas Initiative would not have happened with Senator Hinojosa’s involvement. He said the veteran legislator provided the impetus for the program through discussions with Brett P. Giroir, who was at that time CEO of Texas A&M Health Science Center.

Speaking at the McAllen Public Library in June, 2014, Hinojosa said he was honored to introduce the pilot program. He predicted the initiative would have an “immediate and profound impact” on the lives of South Texans. “It makes sense to me that the Texas A&M System would use its renowned presence in the state’s 254 counties with agricultural extension and the health science center’s multi-campus presence in my native South Texas to improve overall health and wellness,” Hinojosa said.

Meeting with Legislators

In January, 2015, Sharp said securing funding for the Healthy South Texas initiative was his No. 1 legislative goal for the 84th Legislature. Sharp spoke to visiting legislators at the Texas A&M University-Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco in late January. The event was part of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership’s Valley Legislative Tour. The aim was to secure $15 million for the Healthy South Texas 20125 Initiative.

Based on the results of a small pilot program implemented at its Coastal Bend Health Education Center, Sharp told the legislators that Texas A&M believes it can reduce preventable diseases by 25 percent in South Texas by the year 2025 through grassroots education and prevention efforts.

The initiative, Sharp said, would utilize the expertize of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M Health Science Center, A&M’s colleges of medicine, nursing, and pharmacy, officials in the biomedical sciences arena, local partners such as hospitals, medical providers and community-based organizations, and the A&M promotoras that work in South Texas border colonias.

Susan Ballabina
Susan Ballabina

“Almost all of Medicaid costs are preventable, almost all the diseases are preventable,” Sharp told a dozen or so state legislators.

“We started a little partnership with Driscoll Hospital in Corpus Christi over the last couple of years to see if we could have an impact on preventable diseases. Based on this we think that we can have a 25 percent reduction in Medicaid costs in a 26 county region as a pilot project, and then spread it over the state,” Sharp said.

“It does not do you much good once somebody goes into a hospital and you treat them for diabetes and you are getting a Medicaid deal. We want to keep the person from going there to begin with. It is the only way we think we can bend those costs.”

Sharp explained what the AgriLife Extension Service does.

“AgriLife researchers go out and figure out better ways to grow cows, better ways to grow sugar cane, better ways to grow all that, and then AgriLife Extension, which is in every county, takes that research and one day, one night, they might be meeting with 600 farmers and say, here is what you plant next year. It is the most efficient research transfer that exists anywhere in the country,” Sharp said.

Sharp said he and his leadership team took a close look at the AgriLife Extension Service’s success with crops and livestock and then posed the question, why can’t they have the same success with human beings?

“Why can’t we take our health science center, and the IBT (Institute of Biosciences and Technology) research labs in the medical center, take all that we know about diabetes and what kids are supposed to eat and stuff like that and the night that a bunch of AgriLife folks are meeting with farmers to tell them how to grow crops, we have folks using the same facility to meet with 600 moms to tell them how to grow their kids.”

Sharp told the visiting legislators that the results of the Coastal Bend pilot project were very encouraging.

“We experimented with that (an education and prevention program) and the curve bent way beyond our beliefs in Corpus Christi. We believe we can make that work and we want to do a pilot project in 25 counties and eventually take it to the rest of the state. It is something that as a former comptroller can get really excited about. We believe we can bend that curve for the very first time and start paying attention to prevention.”