The Regional Academic Health Center (E-RAHC), Medical Research Division for The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio in Edinburg, a $20 million, 49,437 square-foot facility whose mission focuses on discovering ways to treat obesity, diabetes, cancer, and infectious diseases like tuberculosis, has the infrastructure in place to eventually expand into a 250,000-square-foot medical complex that could host the first two years of a medical school, said Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

That option is crucial for the growth of medical education in Hidalgo County, particularly as several measures are being considered this spring by the Texas Legislature which, if adopted by lawmakers and approved by the governor, would authorize the creation of a full-fledged health science center in the Valley, including a four-year medical school.

"The Edinburg RAHC is well-positioned to not only produce biomedical scientists, who focus on cutting-edge medical research, but also to provide, with the assistance from UT Pan American, the first two years of a medical student's education," said Hinojosa. "In combination with the outstanding resources of the RAHC in Harlingen, which provides the third and fourth years of a medical student's education, the Edinburg RAHC can expand to provide the first two years of medical education, effectively creating a full-fledged UT medical school for the Valley."

Hinojosa was state representative in 1997 when he successfully sponsored legislation that authorized the creation and state funding of what turned out to be three Regional Academic Health Centers in the Valley.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, was the author of the RAHC legislation.

In general, medical school students in the United States spend their first two years predominantly in the classroom and laboratory, and the last two years mostly in the hospital, according to www.faqs.org, an Internet-based educational Web site. Also, according to www.faqs.org, the classes in medical school vary from place to place, but there are some that everyone takes in their first two years, no matter where they are. The amount of lab work varies from class to class and school to school, although some classes (like gross anatomy) feature as much lab work as students have time for.

The RAHC in Edinburg now referred to by UT officials as the E-RAHC is the first biomedical research facility of its kind on the U.S.-Mexico border, and is enabling research faculty members to conduct high level research and mentor students from area universities, Hinojosa explained.

The E-RAHC Medical Research Division provides more opportunities to study diseases specific to the border region, and was the second of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio's RAHC buildings. The first was the Medical Education Division in Harlingen. A School of Public Health RAHC, administered by the UT Health Science Center at Houston, is located in Brownsville.

The E-RAHC is located immediately northeast of the UT-Pan American campus, across the street from the Edinburg Professional Baseball Stadium, near the intersection of Sugar and Schunior roads.

Hinojosa's remarks followed a detailed overview of the E-RAHC provided the previous week by Dr. Thomas J. Slaga, Ph.D., a world-renowned biomedical scientist and a Professor of Pharmacology, who is currently serving as the interim director of the Edinburg biomedical research campus.

Slaga: E-RAHC basis

for UT medical school

During the Wednesday, March 4 meeting hosted at the E-RAHC, Slaga provided almost 90 minutes of insights and a tour of the complex to members of the Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee, who are appointees of the Edinburg City Council.

Included in his presentation, Slaga briefly laid out a blueprint for bringing a major medical school component to the three-time All-America City by enlarging the E-RAHC, which currently features 12 state-of-the-art laboratories with sophisticated technology.

"I know you have seen the building from outside. Probably by this time next year, this facility will have all the labs occupied, and I estimate by next year the total number of people here will be between 80 and 100," Slaga told the medical advisory panel. "What we are trying to do is get the state to build the other part of this, which will be another 60,000 to 70,000 square-feet."

The buildup could continue, with help from the Texas Legislature, the UT System, and other resources, including from the Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee, Slaga added.

Once the E-RAHC is enlarged by the additional 60,000 to 70,000 square-feet, the current site could still handle another 120,000 square-feet of laboratory and classroom facilities, dramatically transforming the existing facility into a 250,000 square-foot medical education complex, he said.

"Eventually, this will be the basis for the first two years of a medical school," Slaga envisioned.

He did not provide a timetable for such expansion, since those decisions would have to be made by the UT System, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and more importantly, the Texas Legislature.

Hinojosa said critical information from the UT System already has been developed to give state lawmakers a good handle on what it would take to upgrade the RAHC components in Edinburg, Harlingen, and the RAHC School of Public Health in Brownsville which is administered by the UT Health Science Center at Houston to be part of a UT four-year medical school.

"Obviously, a major state project like a UT medical school for the Valley would cost tens of millions of dollars a year for construction, operation, and growth of such a facility, but the beneficial economic and health impact for South Texas and the state would be tremendous," said Hinojosa. "As a result, the creation of a UT medical school in the Valley, utilizing the existing resources of the Regional Academic Health Centers, is the number one priority this session for South Texas lawmakers."

Rep. Armando "Mando" Mart-nez, D-Weslaco, is one of three House members who have already filed legislation that would create a four-year UT medical school in the Valley.

"The Valley is in dire need of a medical school and if the RAHC in Edinburg can provide students with the first two years, then that is a major step towards establishing a full-fledged medical school," said Mart-nez.

Mart-nez, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, each have filed similar, but separate measures to bring a health science center, including a four-year medical school, to the Valley.

"With more than a million residents in our region, more physicians are required to serve the needs of Valley citizens," said Mart-nez. "The fact that Valley students have to travel more than 250 miles to attend the nearest medical school in Texas, and that statistically most of those students are more likely to practice in that region, says a lot about the gap between us and the rest of the state."

Chancellor Cigarroa:

E-RAHC one of a kind

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, M.D., the recently-appointed and first Hispanic chancellor of the massive UT System, was president of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio when the E-RAHC had its ribbon cutting on April 25, 2006.

He shared Hinojosa's and Slaga's hopes for the future of the Edinburg campus.

"Nowhere on the Texas-Mexico border is there a research institute that can compare to this one," Cigarroa said at the time. "This will be a place of unprecedented opportunities for students throughout the Rio Grande Valley, and an economic stimulus for the entire region."

Mayor Joe Ochoa, who helped lead the city's efforts back in the mid-1990s to push for the creation of the Regional Academic Health Center, wants Slaga and the city medical advisory committee to meet again, this time with South Texas lawmakers, to develop strategies for promoting the E-RAHC and the UT medical school concept.

Ochoa, who attended the E-RAHC briefing, said he "had already talked with (Rep.) Veronica (Gonzáles, D-McAllen), the senator (Hinojosa), and all the other representatives (in February), and asked them to visit this facility so they could understand what is happening here.

"They created it," Ochoa added. "Sen. Hinojosa was very instrumental in creating it. But like most of us, we have not seen what is here now. I know the senator will come. I know Veronica will come. I know Rep. Aaron Peña (D-Edinburg) will come."

When that panel is again scheduled to meet, it will have to post an advanced notice of the time, date, and location of any such session. Although that group's agendas are not posted on the city's website, their agendas must be posted in front of Edinburg City Hall three days before it holds any meetings.

Those meetings are open to the public.

Medical advisory panel helped land E-RAHC

The Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee is comprised of five members, led by Councilmember August-n "Gus" Garc-a, who serves as chair of the panel, Dr. Beverly Fridie, Ph.D., Dr. Allen Mercado, M.D., Dr. Melva Palacios, M.D., and Gilbert Mercado, III.

Four of the five panel members attended the March 4 presentation at the E-RAHC, with the exception of Palacios, who was excused on important business.

Also in attendance for the presentation and discussions, in addition to Ochoa and medical advisory panel members, were: Dr. Omar Garza, M.D., who is the father of Councilmember Alma Garza; Dr. David Fridie, III, D.P.M., who is the husband of Beverly Fridie; John Peña, Business Development Director for Pro-Medic EMS; Erika G. Reyna, Economic Development Planner 1, who was representing Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas; Rosie Anzaldúa, administrative assistant to Slaga; Edinburg City Secretary Myra Garza; and Lupita Galván, who works for the Edinburg City Secretary's Office.

The Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee makes recommendations to the city council on where to invest public funds for the development of medical programs and facilities.

Funding is restricted to qualified programs which deal with medical purposes.

The advisory panel controls several million dollars which came from profits the city made in the early 1990s from the sale of the publicly-owned Edinburg hospital, which paved the way for the privately-owned Edinburg Regional Medical Center and later, the affiliated Edinburg Children's Hospital, the South Texas Behavioral Health Center, and the Cornerstone Regional Hospital to come into town.

The Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee already played a major role several years ago in helping land the E-RAHC.

The local panel recommended to the Edinburg City Council, and provided the money from the medical funds in controlled, key funds that were needed to secure the biomedical research facility.

In November 2002, the city presented $1 million to the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio in support of the E-RAHC.

The UT System Board of Regents, which had earlier allocated $20 million in Permanent University Fund proceeds for the Edinburg construction, did so with the stipulation of a local contribution of operating funds.

History of the Valley RAHCS

The 75th Texas Legistlature enacted Senate Bill 606, which authorized The University of Texas System to establish and operate a Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) to serve the four counties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy). The Legislature appropriated $30 million of Tuition Revenue Bond Proceeds for construction of the RAHC facilities. At its November 1998 meeting, the UT System Board of Regents established a Lower Rio Grande Valley-wide RAHC comprised of three major divisions the Medical Education Division, the Medical Research Division and the Public Health Division.

Four sites (Brownsville, Edinburg, Harlingen and McAllen) were selected for the location of these various divisions of the RAHC. Medical Education Divisions were designated for Harlingen and McAllen.

McAllen, however, later pulled out of the effort to land a RAHC component in its city.

The Medical Research Divison was designated for Edinburg, and the Public Health Division was designated for Brownsville. Additionally, the Board of Regents designated The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) to oversee and operate the Medical Education and Medical Research Divisions; the Public Health Division was designated as a branch of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston's School of Public Health.

Harlingen was selected through the RFP process as the site for the Medical Education Division which includes a facility for undergraduate and graduate medical education programs. This facility houses the educational programs and support for 24 third-year and 24 fourth-year UTHSCSA medical students, as well as the UTHSCSA residency in Internal Medicine under the sponsorship of Valley Baptist Medical Center (VBMC).

The facility for the Harlingen Medical Education Division (H-RAHC) was constructed using $25 million of the $30 million of Tuition Revenue Bond Proceeds appropriated by the Legistlature for the RAHC. In December 2007 the second facility was dedicated ath the Harlingen RAHC campus - the Academic and Clinical Research building. This facility houses the RAHC clinical research center and also the South Texas VA Health Care CEnter.

The UT Board of Regents designed $20M from the Permanent University Fund (PUF) for the construction of the initial medical research facility of the Medical Research Division (E-RAHC). This research campus of the RAHC is located in Edinburg, adjacent to The University of Texas-Pan American, and will serve the four counties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The flagship RAHC building was constructed on an 18.609-acre tract of land donated and deed to the UT-System by VBMC. An additional 7.6 acre tract was donated by VBMC for future use by the RAHC. Funds for the purchase of the twelve acre tract where the first phase of the Medical Research Division were gifted to the UT System by the City of Edinburg.

Legislative Media reports on major legislation that affects South Texans. The University of Texas System contributed to this article. For more on this, and related stories and photographs, please log on to www.EdinburgPolitics.com