A sweeping plan to create a University of Texas health science center for the Rio Grande Valley, which will feature a full-fledged medical school to help meet the growing demand for doctors in the border region, on Thursday, May 21, received final legislative approval.

It still needs Gov. Rick Perry to sign the measure into law, but given that the legislation was unanimously approved by both the House and Senate, the governor's final blessing is confidently expected by area lawmakers

The action on May 21 involved a House amendment that added several more South Texas counties to the list of areas where the UT System will be able to provide service through the proposed The University of Texas Health Science Center—South Texas.

"This historic decision by the Legislature is a huge victory for South Texas," said Rep. Armando "Mando" MartÃ-nez, D-Weslaco, one of the main House sponsors of the legislation, Senate Bill 98. "Our new health science center will not only be a state-of-the-art network of sophisticated, life-giving medical education and health care, it will be a giant economic development engine for South Texas."

The nearest health science center — the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio — has forever improved the lot of the almost 1.7 million residents in Bexar County, he noted, predicting the same results for the Rio Grande Valley.

Currently, the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio contributes nearly $1.3 billion to that region's economy, has been a chief catalyst for the $16.3 billion biosciences and health industry in San Antonio, and is responsible for more than 12,000 jobs both on and off its campus, according to UT officials.

"Those numbers are staggering, and that is what we have set in motion for current and future generations of Rio Grande Valley residents," MartÃ-nez said.

Since such a dramatic transformation of the RAHCs networks may involve an estimated $100 million in financing within the next decade — plus securing vital accreditations with the state and federal governments — the legislation gives the UT System six years to get the Valley medical school's academic and financial affairs in order.

The University of Texas Health Science Center—South Texas, will represent a major upgrade and consolidation of the three UT Regional Academic Health Centers, more commonly known as RAHCs, including the biomedical research component in Edinburg.

The existing RAHCs will serve as anchor sites for the new South Texas new health science center.

The Edinburg, Harlingen, and Brownsville RACHs, whose creation was first authorized in 1997 under legislation authored by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and then-Rep. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, are essentially branch campuses of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio and the UT Health Science Center at Houston.

(RAHC is the most familiar acronym for the area's three Regional Academic Health Centers. An acronym is a word formed from the first letter of several words in a name.)

Edinburg medical

school option remains

The Mid-Valley lawmaker noted that the legislation keeps the option to offer medical school education in Hidalgo County at the Edinburg RAHC — formally known as The Regional Academic Health Center (E-RAHC), Medical Research Division for The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio in Edinburg.

"Earlier this spring, Valley legislative leaders were informed that the RAHC in Edinburg, which currently focuses on advanced biomedical research, has the physical infrastructure in place so that it can be significantly enlarged in order to provide the first two years of the traditional four-year medical school education," MartÃ-nez said. "This would make the presence of a UT medical school, and the advanced academic and medical resources it would represent, even more accessible to the people of Hidalgo and Starr counties."

Hinojosa, who along with Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is a co-author of SB 98, shares MartÃ-nez' vision for the Edinburg biomedical research campus.

"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," Hinojosa would later say. "In combination with the outstanding resources of the RAHC in Harlingen, which provides the third and fourth years of a medical student's education — and medical residency programs — 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."

Dr. Slaga laid

out blueprint

On Wednesday, March 4, Thomas J. Slaga, Ph.D., the interim director of the E-RAHC — provided an expert overview on how the local facility could be converted into a medical school.

During a comprehensive update about the E-RAHC before the city-council appointed Edinburg Community/Health Medical Care Advisory Committee, he laid out a blueprint for bringing a major medical school component to the three-time All-America City. It would involve 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.

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.

Bill Analysis

A digest of the legislation, prepared by the research arm of the House of Representatives — The House Research Organization — includes the following highlights:

Senate Bill 98 would authorize the board of regents of the University of Texas System to establish the University of Texas Health Science Center-South Texas within The University of Texas System, with its main campus and administrative offices in Cameron County. The bill would authorize the transition of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) to the University of Texas Health Science Center-South Texas (UTHSC-South Texas), to be a component institution of the University of Texas System.

The health science center would consist of a medical school — The University of Texas Medical School - South Texas, which would offer degree programs in medicine and other health-related programs — and other facilities. The board of regents would be authorized to include facilities located in Bee, Brooks, Cameron, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Kenedy, Kleberg, Nueces, Starr, Willacy, Jim Wells, and Zapata counties to operate programs and related activities.

UTSCH-South Texas would be eligible to participate in the AUF if the bill received a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. It would also be eligible for funding from the Permanent Health Fund for Higher Education. Tuition revenue bonds authorized for the RAHC would be transferred to UTHSCSouth Texas.

The UT board of regents would be authorized to make joint appointments in the health science center, its component institutions, and other institutions under the board‘s governance; to accept gifts and grants; and to enter into agreements under which additional facilities used for teaching and research could be provided by public or private entities. A teaching hospital provided by a public or private entity would be authorized, but could not be constructed, maintained, or operated with state funds.

Establishing the health science center would be subject to available funding, either through appropriations or other sources. No funds for a state fiscal biennium ending on or before August 31, 2015, could be appropriated for establishing the health science center.

The bill would require that UTHSC-South Texas be subject to the continuing supervision of THECB and related rules be adopted.

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