University of Texas System Regent A.R. (Tony) Sanchez Jr. described the creation of the UT System's Lower Rio Grande Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) as an historic event for the Valley at a luncheon Wednesday (April 28) that was part of the first International Conference on Health Issues at The University of Texas-Pan American.
"I truly believe (that) no event in the recent history of the Lower Rio Grande Valley has held as much promise for improving the lives of its people as the decision by the Texas Legislature to establish a Regional Academic Health Center in the Valley and the subsequent action by The University of Texas System to carry out this mandate," Sanchez said. "I believe it may prove to be a model institution for other parts of our country and other nations as well."
The UT System has proposed components of the RAHC for four Valley cities - a medical research center in Edinburg to be located adjacent to UTPA, a medical education division in Harlingen, a public health division in Brownsville and a medical education division extension in McAllen. He said the UT System is moving forward with the planning process for the components.
"The RAHC will be a truly regional institution, well positioned to serve communities throughout the Valley and deserving of strong support from the entire region," Sanchez said. "This is especially important because since its inception, the RAHC has been envisioned as a collaboration involving close partnerships among the state, the university system, the medical community and local governments.
"The RAHC is designed to bring enhanced health professional education programs, advanced medical research and expanded public health programs to the Lower Rio Grande Valley," he said. "It represents an opportunity to bring improvement to a region that for many years has been underserved by the State of Texas in terms of readily accessible health education opportunities as well as in the number of primary care physicians available to serve this rapidly growing population."
Sanchez noted that the medical education division component planned for McAllen is still being discussed.
"The city leaders from McAllen are still considering whether or not they want to be part of the RAHC," he said.
In response to a question about a possible contingency plan if McAllen chooses not to participate, Sanchez expressed confidence that the McAllen RAHC component will become a reality.
"The leadership in McAllen...has been very responsible in their approach to these negotiations, and I believe in my heart of hearts that it is going to go to McAllen," he said. "We need to sit down and talk, explain what our positions are and the reasons and logic behind those positions, and we need to listen to them and find out what their needs are. I'm very confident it's going to work out."
Sanchez said that the allocation of $20 million, including $15 million for construction of the medical research division in Edinburg, from the UT System's share of the Permanent University Fund has set a precedent in the Valley.
"It represents an action that is both symbolic and meaningful for Texas," he said. "This public endowment fund, which has been used to fund construction projects, make capital improvement purchases and enhance academic programs at a number of Texas public universities, is continuing to build. The Valley and its institutions, however, have never participated directly in this fund.
"When (the fund) was set up, it was set up for the citizens of Texas, and the last time I checked, the Lower Rio Grande Valley was part of Texas," Sanchez said. "The regents' decision to direct Permanent University Fund resources to the RAHC as a supplement to the legislative appropriation illustrates the true depth of The University of Texas System's commitment to make this project a stellar success."
Sanchez voiced strong support for electronic connections not only between the four components of the RAHC and The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, which is managing the RAHC, but also between the RAHC components and medical schools throughout the state.
"I think it is extremely important that, when the RAHC is set up in these four cities, they be linked electronically to all our medical schools, including MD Anderson (Cancer Center in Houston)," he said. "We have been behind for a number of years, and the only way in my judgment to catch up or to rapidly bring the best professional help to the Valley that we can is electronically."
He said the RAHC facilities will be made available to physicians and other health professionals in the four Valley counties, providing access to library services, professional meetings and continuing education programs. The electronic connections will ensure that the world's most advanced medical libraries, diagnostic techniques and consultative procedures will be available to the health professionals associated with the RAHC.
Sanchez said he believes the RAHC will evolve into something more.
"My dreams, and I am sure that many of you share these dreams, are that one day the RAHC as we know it will become a health science center, much like we have in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio," he said.
"I'm going to work very hard to make sure that the legislature approves enough funds to make this a health science center. Why shouldn't it be? There are over a million people in the Valley, and there's I don't know how many more across the border. Why should we not have a medical school in South Texas?"
Sanchez, who was the point person for the regents concerning the RAHC, is the chairman of the board and CEO of Sanchez-O'Brien Oil and Gas Corp. in Laredo. He serves on the Board of Directors of International Bancshares and of Amtech Corp., and is a member of the National Board of Directors of the Smithsonian Institution.
He is a member of the American Bar Association and the Delta Theta Phi Law Fraternity. Since 1973, he has been actively involved in oil and gas exploration and development along with his partners, Brian E. O'Brien and his father, the late A.R. Sanchez Sr. Their company employs 100 people in its Houston and Laredo offices and is the 18th largest natural gas producer in the state.
Sanchez made his remarks at UTPA's first International Conference on Health Issues, a two-day conference with the goal of encouraging international collaborative research and finding ways to improve the quality of health care on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.
"Those of us on the border know firsthand the health problems we share with our Mexican counterparts and have seen how these hazards move with haste across international borders," Sanchez said. "This international conference is quite timely."
The conference was cosponsored by the UTPA College of Health Sciences and Human Services and Central Power and Light Co., with assistance from the UTPA Office of Center Operations and Community Services, The University of Texas System Texas-Mexico Border Health Coordination Office, the UTPA Center for International Studies and the UTPA Nursing Honor Society.