Rio Grande Medical School Expands Health Care Despite Tight Budget Year

Sept. 6, 2017 

Note to reporters and editors: In addition to the Texas Medicine profile on The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Medical School, please note these other September features you might find newsworthy:

Physicians face dozens of "prior authorization" hurdles each week as they try to prescribe care and medicine for their patients; and
Physicians are learning chronic disease health problems in some adult patients might be a result of Adverse Childhood Experiences.

A medical school created to serve one of the poorest and most underserved areas in Texas faces a major challenge as state education funds are cut in a tight budget year. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine (UTRGV) relies heavily on operational funding from the Texas Legislature to train medical students and improve health care along the Texas-Mexico border. In May, the legislature approved a two-year budget of $54.1 million for UTRGV. The funding package, however, was $7.2 million less than the budget given two years earlier. The September issue of the Texas Medical Association’s (TMA’s) Texas Medicine magazine examines the Valley medical school that just welcomed its second class, or “cohort,” of students.    

John H. Krouse, MD, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine and vice president for health affairs, says the loss of state money will not cause cuts, but it will force the school to be "very strategic" about where it expands. The area has no hospital district to help fund the medical school, so state funding is its lifeblood. UTRGV, like other medical schools, has considered public-private partnerships to generate revenue and local support to create a hospital district in Hidalgo County. The taxing authority of a district could provide millions of dollars annually for the school and give it a shot at more federal funds. However, county voters twice turned down a hospital district referendum. Dr. Krouse says UTRGV is open to all funding options, "but long term, for sustainability, we need a local hospital district. It's something every other academic medical center has in the state."

Carlos J. Cardenas, MD, TMA president and advocate for the medical school's creation, says UTRGV faces many of the same obstacles all new medical schools expect: improving funding sources, recruiting faculty, developing more residencies — or training positions for new physicians — and raising its profile. Despite the financial challenges, Cardenas says UTRGV has boosted the local economy and expanded health care access in the region. "To have a professional school in our community that could make use of the raw brain talent and just brain power that exists down here ― that would be the whole thing ― the piece of the puzzle that would make the area grow," Dr. Cardenas says.

Dr. Cardenas says the school is trying new ways of teaching medicine and reaching out to neighboring areas. One of the first of those innovative programs is a mobile clinic ― partly staffed by first- and second-year medical students as well as residents ― that delivers health care to areas that are critically underserved. This includes 16 colonias or unincorporated neighborhoods that typically have poor infrastructure, low-incomes, and large Hispanic populations. 

That care fills a need across the four counties that make up the Valley: Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy. Throughout the region, more than 38 percent of people are uninsured. The overall rate for Texas, which has the highest percentage of people without health insurance in the country, is 17 percent, Dr. Krouse said. "There is a poor physician-patient ratio, so there are a number of people who live in this area who simply have not had the access to care that they might have in other cities. It's an opportunity to build a community-based practice, to increase the primary care in the area, to look at some innovative programs in how you deliver care to the communities." This outreach, which gives students early hands-on opportunities, is part of the school's unusual approach to educating future physicians.

Dr. Cardenas believes education financing will turn around as more people see the school as an economic driver in research and other health-related industries. "There will be people who make their careers here," Dr. Cardenas said. "They're going to make discoveries that are going to make a huge difference in how we're going to tackle certain illnesses. So we're just scratching the surface."

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 50,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 110 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans.

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Contact:  Brent Annear (512) 370-1381; cell: (512) 656-7320; email: brent.annear[at]texmed[dot]org

Marcus Cooper (512) 370-1382; cell: (512) 650-5336; email: marcus.cooper[at]texmed[dot]org

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Last Updated On

February 14, 2020