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UTPA students Aaron Barriero and Staphany Ortega are pictured with UTRGV Vice President Veronica Gonzales at the state Capitol.

AUSTIN, Texas – If UTPA student Staphany Ortega’s grandmother had known that a Hidalgo County Hospital District was going to help fund the new UTRGV School of Medicine she would have voted for it, not against.

This was the testimony Ortega provided at a hearing of the Texas House County Affairs Committee at the state Capitol on Thursday.

Ortega was one of two UTPA students to make the long trip to Austin to testify in support of House Bill 1596. The legislation, authored by state Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, D-McAllen, would decrease the maximum rate of tax a Hidalgo County Healthcare District could charge. Instead of 75 cents per $100 valuation, which is what it is now, it would be 25 cents.

Ortega explained that she is a senior at UTPA and is majoring in Biology. “I will be pursuing a career in medicine in the near future. I will be applying for the entering class of 2016,” Ortega said, referencing the new UTRGV School of Medicine. Ortega said she got a “wonderful opportunity” to attend Texas Christian University in Fort Worth for two years. She said it opened her eyes to pursuing a career in medicine.

Ortega believes Valley’s new medical school, along with a hospital district in Hidalgo County, would help address a shortage of healthcare professionals in the region. She testified that her family knows firsthand about the shortage of specialist doctors because her father was left a quadriplegic due to an accident and her ten-year old brother contracted cerebral palsy at an early age. Ortega said there is a lack of neurosurgeons in the Valley.

“The Valley needs a lot of physicians. We lack a lot of specialties. Speaking as a student, as a Valley resident, and as somebody who has been through it first hand with my family, we really need physicians but specifically culturally sensitive physicians who are bilingual, who can effectively communicate with the people who live there,” Ortega testified.

Last November, Hidalgo County residents narrowly voted against setting up a hospital district. Guerra’s bill renames it a healthcare district. Ortega thinks there was a misunderstanding in the community about what the hospital/healthcare district would do.

“Concerning the people who voted against it, my grandmother actually voted against this bill,” Ortega testified. “My grandmother has lived in the Rio Grande Valley her entire life and she watches the news every day and she was very misinformed. When I spoke to her about it she did not know that this would also support the medical school. And so when I was able to clear things up for her she informed me that had she known this she would have voted for it. Like my grandmother, a lot of people in the Valley only speak Spanish or they are not very informed. And so, when they do go out and vote, maybe they are not making a very well-informed decision.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, chairs the County Affairs Committee. “Thank you for traveling so far and I wish you well in your medical studies. It is a very exciting thing that there is a new medical school in South Texas. It’s really a cool thing,” Coleman said to Ortega.

The other UTPA student to testify in support of HB 1596 was Aaron Barriero, who just completed his studies at the university and, like Ortega, is hoping to be admitted to the inaugural class at the UTRGV School of Medicine.

“I am testifying in favor of HB 1596. This is a very important thing,” Like Staphany, Barriero testified. “I have just graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American in December and I am applying to medical school to start in 2016 as well. While I was at UTPA I was very involved in the process for the new university. It is an amazing thing that we are able to establish at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.”

Barriero testified that the Valley cannot establish the UTRGV School of Medicine and not put in place a mechanism to see it move forward. “The opportunity to ask Hidalgo County to vote for this bill and to vote to develop a healthcare district is so important is because the funds that will support the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine will help advance it,” he said.

Barriero said the Valley strives to do as well other parts of Texas and the nation. “If we do not have the ability to secure a source of funding that we can depend on, we are going to be limited in that,” he said referencing the medical school. He pointed out that Texas has a lower percentage of physicians than the national average and that the Valley has a lower percentage than the state.

“We have a severe shortage of physicians within the Valley. I work in Edinburg Regional in the emergency department. The physicians that we do have here, although they do a great job, they are not from here. They fly in from Fort Worth. They fly in from San Antonio, from Wisconsin,” Barriero said.

“Although they do a great job in serving the members of our community they do not understand the culture. That is what Staphany was talking about. We need physicians who understand what it is like to live in the Valley. By having this medical school here in our community, in our backyard, it will go a long way to keeping students here and becoming doctors here, doctors that understand what it is like, the problems we face. For me, that is what this means.”

Barriero pointed out that 36 percent of Valley residents live below the poverty line. He said that in addition to a lack of funds, many are afraid to visit a doctor. “Chair Coleman, we have a very large population. The need for a healthcare district is important. You speak of the indigent care and you speak of the 36 percent that are under the poverty line. Those people are afraid to get healthcare. They are afraid to go to a doctor. When you hear those stories – I have never had that fear – and you hear about people who are afraid to get care and take care of themselves, we cannot have that.”

Barriero concluded his testimony by stating that the Legislature needs to take the proper steps to allow Valley residents access to proper healthcare. It can do that, he said, by passing HB 1596. “I would like to thank Representative Guerra for bringing this forward… and for bringing it back down to 25 cents, versus 75 cents.” He said this speaks to Guerra’s wisdom and his ability to listen to his constituents.

Also testifying in support of HB 1596 were Edinburg City Manager Ramiro Garza and Hidalgo County Economic Development Director Bobby Villarreal. Nobody testified against the bill. However, state Reps. Jonathan Stickland and Tony Tinderholt said they had heard from a number of Hidalgo County residents who are in opposition to the bill. They said the residents are concerned about a hospital/healthcare district adding to the tax burden.

Rep. Guerra pointed out that HB 1596 does not create a healthcare district. He said it simply limits the tax rate of a future healthcare district to 25 cents per $100 property valuation.

“I am glad citizens are watching this but I have got to emphasize again, this bill does not create a hospital district, or a healthcare district. It builds in safeguards. Right now, if this thing went to the voters and a healthcare district was formed, it could go as high as 75 cents. I want to make sure it never gets close to that,” Guerra told the Rio Grande Guardian, at the end of the hearing.

“We would be the only county in the state of Texas – everybody else is at 75 cents – the only county in the state of Texas at 25 cents. I do not think they would ever get close to that. But, again, the voters of Hidalgo County will have to make that decision, whether they even want to have a healthcare district. That is not what this bill is about. It is about putting in safeguards to make sure that the taxpayers of Hidalgo County are protected.”

Asked what a healthcare district would do for Hidalgo County, Guerra told the Rio Grande Guardian that it would allow for more federal funds to come to the county via the Medicaid 1115 Waiver. He said it would also help pay for indigent healthcare. “And, it would not only help the medical school, it would be phenomenal, especially for our students who want to pursue a medical career, as we heard here today.”

Guerra said he is willing to listen to any concerns Reps. Stickland or Tinderholt might have about his legislation and even “tweak” it if necessary. “Every one of those representatives on this committee is doing their job and they are asking questions. I comment them all for that,” Guerra said.