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South Texas needs medical school

University of Texas regents recently took an expected but welcome step toward creating a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley. Like the rest of the state, South Texas is growing, but as lush as it is, it is a poor area in desperate need of medical care and facilities.

Study after study of the South Texas economy comes to the inevitable and obvious conclusion: that most of the residents are poor and poor people are most likely to get sick. They are likely to get sick because they are poor and because they are poor, many South Texas residents are unlikely to have health insurance.

Even if they had health insurance, the number of physicians available to attend to them is a low one. A Texas Comptroller’s report noted: “The increasing number of health care workers in South Texas is still not enough to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has designated 16 of the region’s 28 counties as having a shortage of primary health care providers — primary care doctors, dentists and mental health professionals

Primary care doctors are in short supply in more than half of South Texas’ counties. Primary care practitioners include doctors of medicine and doctors of osteopathy who provide direct care in general or family practice, general internal medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology. Primary care physicians’ offices and clinics are usually the first stop for people seeking medical care.”

A South Texas medical school has long been a dream but one that has been out of reach before now. When Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, proposed a medical school for Austin, he not only raised eyebrows in Central Texas but all over South Texas as well.

As Watson’s proposal gained traction, South Texans who had long heard “maybe tomorrow” worried that Austin would hijack the money and step on the chances for a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.

Ironically, the Austin effort to get a medical school may have improved South Texas prospects. Asked during the campaign about the Austin proposal’s impact on a South Texas medical school, Watson replied that medical care shouldn’t be a zero sum game. In May, Watson and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, both got good news: Regents approved medical schools in both Austin and in the Rio Grande Valley.

But neither commitment carried full funding. For Watson, it meant turning to Travis County taxpayers to plug the funding gaps. UT regents committed $100 million over the next decade toward establishing a medical school in the Valley, but South Texas leaders are facing the same funding gaps Watson confronted. Finding the money is going to be tough in property-poor South Texas. The regents committed to building facilities but where the $50 million or so a year to operate the school is going to come from is — as state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, put it — an open question.

“In fact, we will still have a great deal of work to do for getting the final funding for the medical school,” said Dr. Kenneth Shine, the University of Texas executive vice chancellor for health affairs told regents last week.

Regents called for combining UT-Pan American in Edinburg, UT-Brownsville and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, now operated by the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, would save about $6 million in year by eliminating duplication.

Though there are still plenty of questions, the regents took a significant step toward the eventual opening of a medical school in South Texas. The next step is legislative approval and that should happen when the Legislature meets in January.

While there are doubts about financing, there can’t be any doubt about the need. This is a job that needs doing and it needs to be done right.

Austin American-Statesman