The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration has awarded $3.75 million to The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine to develop three Area Health Education Centers (AHEC).

Dr. John Ronnau, UTRGV School of Medicine senior associate dean for Interprofessional Education, said the grant – which will allocate $750,000 per year for five years – is intended to help increase access to primary healthcare in rural and underserved areas; develop and enhance education and training networks within communities, academic institutions and community-based organizations; and teach medical and students in other health-related disciplines about the social determinants of health and health disparities.

The grant will allow the School of Medicine to establish primary healthcare clinics in three AHECS, which will be operated by the professional healthcare staff, faculty and students of the UTRGV College of Health Affairs and the School of Medicine, Ronnau said. The School of Medicine and the College of Health Affairs will develop curriculum for students that will include offering credit for their work in the clinic, and will develop a pipeline program through which high school students interested in healthcare-related fields can receive training.

The grant allows the School of Medicine and its partners to build upon the work they’ve been doing in communities throughout the Rio Grande Valley as part of their community partnerships and inter-professional education teams, he said.

Ronnau said the School of Medicine’s strong partnerships with the College of Health Affairs, other colleges and departments within UTRGV, Cameron, Hidalgo, and Starr counties’ local health clinics, regional community colleges, and regional medical high schools, made the grant possible.

“Through the good work of the School of Medicine and College of Health Affairs and our community partners, we got the attention of federal grantors,” Ronnau said. “Hopefully, this is a foot in the door for future funding.”

The money will support three AHECs in the Valley, and the School of Medicine is working with its county partners to determine the locations of those centers.

As part of the grant, UTRGV is required to match 100 percent of the funds provided by the HRSA. Ronnau said this can include faculty time, space for the centers provided by the counties, donations from the localities participating in the interprofessional education teams, and other in-kind donations.

The planning phase of the grant begins Sept. 1. Program initiatives will begin September 2018. The grant ends Aug. 31, 2022, but is subject to renewal.