Hopes by area leaders to bring a University of Texas medical school to Hidalgo County remain intact under legislation approved on Tuesday, April 14, by the House Higher Education Committee, says Rep. Armando "Mando" MartÃ-nez, D-Weslaco.

The measure, Senate Bill 95 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and co-authored by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was approved by the Senate on Wednesday, April 8.

Less than a week later, in a calculated move to get overcome legislative deadlines that can often doom the passage of a measure, MartÃ-nez, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, agreed to drop their respective, but identical, House bill versions of SB 95.

Instead, the three men agreed to serve as House sponsors of SB 95, which resulted in the House committee's unanimous passage on April 14 of SB 95.

That measure now awaits action by the House General Calendars Committee, which is charged with scheduling the bill for debate and a vote by the full House of Representatives.

Rep. Lucio will be the lead House sponsor of SB 95.

MartÃ-nez said SB 95 has many provisions important to South Texas, most important its directive that authorize, for the first time, the UT System Board of Regents to begin the detailed processes that will lead to expanding the three RAHCs — which are located in Edinburg, Harlingen, and Brownsville — into The University of Texas Health Science Center-South Texas.

The E-RAHC is 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.

Since such major upgrades of the three RAHCs may involve an estimated $100 million in financing — plus securing vital accreditations with the state and federal governments — SB 95 gives the UT System six years to get the Valley medical school's academic and financial affairs in order.

More accessible

to Upper Valley

SB 95 allows area leaders the time to work on a strategy to expand the RAHC in Edinburg to include offering the first two years of a four-year medical school.

For Hidalgo County and Starr county residents, providing the first two years of the planned UT medical school at the Edinburg RAHC brings the benefits of the proposed UT Health Science Center-South Texas that much closer, said MartÃ-nez.

"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."

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 website. 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.

Dr. Slaga laid out blueprint

On Wednesday, March 4, the interim director of the Edinburg RAHC — now 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 — provided an overview on how the local facility could be converted into a medical school.

Included in his presentation, Thomas J. Slaga, Ph.D., 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.

Slaga was addressing a public meeting of the city council-appointed Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee as part of an update and tour of the local facility.

"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.

Sen. Hinojosa endorsed

E-RAHC expansion

However, Slaga's vision drew strong support from Martinez, along with Hinojosa.

"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."

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.

"The mushrooming population growth of deep South Texas, coupled with the many successes of the RAHCs, help justify the need to create the proposed health science center," said Hinojosa.

According to the bill analysis of SB 95:

The South Texas border region has recently made strides in the development of professional health education with the opening of the Irma Rangel Pharmacy school at Texas A&M Kingsville and the development of the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC), with facilities at The University of Texas (UT)-Brownsville, UT-Pan American, and in Harlingen.

The interest shown in these educational facilities illustrates the desire of the fast-growing population in the South Texas border region to pursue professional degree programs.

There is a great need for healthcare providers in the South Texas region.

Establishing the first medical school in South Texas will provide an opportunity for local university graduates to attend professional school.

An increasing number of students are choosing to continue their education in these locations and more of these graduates are choosing to practice in South Texas.

The establishment of The University of Texas Health Science Center-South Texas will increase medical research specific to the U.S./Mexico border area, allow local residents to receive a complete medical education without having to travel to another part of the state, and would help address the current medical provider shortage in the area through new faculty and residency positions.

Role of local advisory panel

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 is comprised of five members, led by Councilmember AugustÃ-n "Gus" Garcia, who serves as chair of the panel, Beverly Fridie, Ph.D., Allen Mercado, M.D., Melva Palacios, M.D., and Gilbert Mercado, III.

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.

Legislative Media reports on major legislation that affects South Texans. For more on this, and related photographs and stories, please log on to www.EdinburgPolitics.com.