HARLINGEN – The Regional Academic Health Center would become the medical school for which local officials have worked and hoped since it was built 10 years ago, under a plan announced Thursday by the University of Texas System Board of Regents.
Two-thirds of the Texas Legislature must approve the plan to create a new university by merging the RAHC, the University of Texas at Brownsville and University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg.
“We don’t have all the entire details,” state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said. “What we have is a concept.
“What they introduced (Thursday) was a proposal for us to work on, to create a new university,” Lucio said.
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said the new university would have an enrollment of about 27,000, graduating its first class in 2018.
Shortly after the announcement, Har-lingen leaders cheered the proposal.
Randy Whittington, president of the South Texas Medical Foundation, said, “It’s going to be absolutely huge for the Valley. It’s something that we’ve been working on for 20 years. I’m very happy that we’re making progress.”
Whittington said that he was pleased with the commitment by reagents to provide $100 million to fund the medical school, which he said would accelerate the pace of the school’s creation.
Mayor Chris Boswell called the announcement “transformational,” echoing the regents language when they notified the public of a major announcement ahead of Thursday’s press conference.
“It will have enormous impact on the future of education, the opportunity of education of a very fast-growing population in the Rio Grande Valley,” Boswell said. “It’s a big day to see the University of Texas want to make this investment.”
Jennifer LaCoste-Caputo, executive director of public affairs for the UT System, said if the RAHC becomes a school of medicine at the new university, it will be a four-year medical program with students doing residencies throughout the Valley.
The RAHC has been used to train third- and fourth-year medical students from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Boswell said.
The $100 million would be dispersed to the new school of medicine during a 10-year period, LaCoste-Caputoshe said.
The money would be used to recruit a dean and faculty.
Valley Baptist Health System President and CEO Manny Vela said the new university will affect the Valley in an “in-credibly positive way.”
“Valley Baptist will obviously benefit in regards to our participation with the residency programs through the medical school,” he said. “The residency programs will actually be established throughout both (Cameron and Hidalgo) counties.... You look at it from that perspective, just on the medical school perspective, the entire region is going to benefit from these residents being trained down here in the Valley.”
Vela said about 75 to 80 percent of the medical students will remain in the Valley and practice medicine when they complete their residencies.
“When you consider that we’re one of the fastest-growing regions in the country and remain one of the most medically under-served, that’s a huge benefit to the region,” he said.
Texas State Technical College Harlingen, which offers a licensed vocational nursing program as well as surgical technology and medical assistant programs, is likely to see its enrollment increase, TSTC President Cesar Maldonado said.
“A full medical school in the Valley will bring opportunities at several levels. First and foremost, it will improve the health care capacity in our region, which is a critical need,” he said.
“Next, it will help encourage higher-education partnerships in our region to increase student success, not only in the health care disciplines, but in engineering and technology.
“I think it’s an unbelievable opportunity that the University of Texas is considering to bring to our region and it certainly has the support of TSTC and anything we can do to make it happen.”
UT’s commitment set the stage for Valley legislators to work on filling the financing gap for a medical school that could cost upward of $50 million to operate each year. While regents also laid groundwork for some of the school’s capital costs to be covered by the state’s Permanent University Fund, UT officials acknowledged that much work is ahead.
“The money that you’re proposing to consider for the medical school is crucial to moving that agenda forward,” Dr. Kenneth Shine, the University of Texas executive vice chancellor for health affairs, told regents Thursday. “In fact, we will still have a great deal of work to do for getting the final funding for the medical school.”
Valley officials have worked for decades to develop a medical school to combat the region’s physician shortage and address its health-care disparities, including high rates of diabetes and obesity. But the push for a South Texas medical school has gained speed in recent months after Valley officials openly expressed displeasure with UT’s slow pace and flirted with Texas A&M University about its interest in expanding its presence here.
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa visited Edinburg in August to unveil a blueprint for graduating the first cohort of Valley medical students in 2018 by relying on medical school infrastructure in the Valley and San Antonio. Thursday’s financial commitment from the regents builds upon the blueprint Cigarroa announced in August.
UT regents also authorized Cigarroa to establish a new South Texas university that includes the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and the future South Texas School of Medicine. The reorganization will make both universities and the medical school eligible for allocations from the Permanent University Fund, an endowment authorized by the Texas Constitution that is funded by mineral revenues.
The McAllen area has built its hospital and medical infrastructure more than Harlingen and has a larger population base to draw upon, McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez said. And if the medical school requires the financial support of taxpayers, he argued that it should go in the county with the bulk of the tax base.
Hidalgo County contains more than $30 billion in taxable property values, compared to $16 billion in Cameron County.