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YOUR VALLEY VOICE: UTRGV looks to expand partnerships to provide health care for veterans

UTRGV looks to expand partnerships to provide health care for veterans

HARLINGEN – The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are looking into ways they can collaborate to improve healthcare access for area veterans.

The UTRGV Regional Academic Health Center was the venue Monday morning for two roundtable discussions – one with community leaders and another with veterans.

The event was hosted by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, with the participation of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald, and UTRGV leaders that included Founding President Guy Bailey, UTRGV School of Medicine Inaugural Dean Dr. Francisco Fernandez (who was out of town and participated via teleconference), and Dr. Leonel Vela, founding dean of the RAHC and now UTRGV senior associate dean for education.

In addition to Cornyn, participating Texas legislators included U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar and U.S. Rep. Filemón Vela. Joining the discussion was Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (ret’d.), a Rio Grande City native and commander of Coalition Ground Forces in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004.

“It speaks volumes about the care that our elected officials have for this region for them to make time to meet with their constituents personally,” Bailey said.

After a breakfast dialogue with community leaders, the federal and state government officials toured UTRGV’s Smart Hospital, located on the second floor of the Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic in Harlingen, and Sec. McDonald spoke with local middle and high school students enrolled in medical track programs about opportunities the VA offers for healthcare professionals.

With more than 1.6 million veterans living in Texas – more than 40,000 of them in the Valley – access to health care for veterans is vital, officials said. And while the VA has made improvements in access to care, it still has a long way to go, McDonald acknowledged.

Dean Vela said the School of Medicine’s predecessor, the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio’s Rio Grande Valley program, has a relationship with the VA, including having medical students and residents rotate at the VA clinic in Harlingen, and having the VA fund medical residents for the internal and family medicine residency programs.

“Around this country, it would be rare to find a physician who, in their medical education, has not received at least a portion of their medical education or training in a VA clinical venue. And it’s no different here,” he said.

Forming partnerships with medical schools, such as the one currently pending accreditation at UTRGV, allows the VA to train the doctors who can then work in the VA system, McDonald said.

Dean Fernandez said the VA is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of educational partnerships between the VA and medical schools in the United States to train physicians in caring for veterans.

“It is one of the best programs in the country to provide clinical training in medicine and 40 other health care professions,” he said. “We are in the right place at the right time to be innovative and resourceful in our search to co-lead new educational, clinical and research programs to benefit our veterans.”

McDonald concurs on the potential for collaboration with UTRGV.

“The opening of the medical school here at UTRGV is a prime example of the kind of partnerships that we want,” he said.

The VA is interested in working with the UTRGV School of Medicine on research, medical residency programs and other initiatives, he said, adding that he was greatly impressed with the UTRGV Simulation Center.

He said the VA also would be interested in working with UTRGV on simulation programs for medical use.

“These types of strategic partnerships can lead to better care for our veterans, and that’s why they’re so important to us,” McDonald said.

Asked whether a full inpatient care wing could be set aside at the School of Medicine for veterans, McDonald said, “All options are on the table. The only thing that matters is how to get better care for our veterans.”

Bailey added that UTRGV is happy to work with veterans and the VA to provide healthcare in a way that best suits the veterans and the VA.

“Our job is to serve,” Bailey said, “so we want to be helpful in whatever way we can.”