Talk of a joint hospital district puts Starr County officials on offensive
RIO GRANDE CITY — Earlier this week, the Starr County commissioners passed a resolution opposing a joint hospital district between Starr and Hidalgo Counties.
The move was a culmination of several discussions among county leaders over such a proposition: one was a public forum, the other a meeting of the Starr County Memorial Hospital board, and a joint meeting with the county commissioners and the hospital board.
The idea of a joint hospital district, it could be safe to say, had alarmed county officials. But was that idea actually being seriously considered in Hidalgo County?
“Nope, not to my knowledge,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “I checked with my delegation and nobody discussed this issue with them.”
So if a joint district with Starr County was not a serious proposal, what had prompted the concern here? It all began with an article in the Rio Grande Guardian in which former U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa suggested holding a workshop with state legislators to discuss the feasibility of a joint Starr and Hidalgo hospital district.
The article then became the focus of a meet and greet with Dr. Antonio Falcon, a family medicine doctor from Rio Grande City, who was the keynote speaker at the June 19 event meant to be a discussion on healthcare innovation in Starr County.
The subject also became the focus of a hospital board meeting held a week later and a joint county commission/hospital board meeting on July 2.
“For us it was a big surprise,” said Dr. Jose Vazquez, chairman of the Starr County Memorial Hospital board.
“Of course, we always take positions based on facts and this was just basically a talk and a preliminary conversation — a unilateral conservation — from the people in Hidalgo County so since we were never approached to entertain such possibility, we just commented at that point that there were no comments because we didn’t have enough information to make a judgment whether that was something that was a benefit for Starr County or that we would ever consider something like this.”
The county commissioners, however, felt strongly enough that the idea, as it was presented in the article, was not in the best interest of the county when they passed the resolution on Monday.
Vazquez, too, believed that Starr had more to lose by such a proposal.
Starr County is the only county in the Rio Grande Valley with a hospital district. It was created in the 1970s and is the entity the runs the Starr County Memorial Hospital, the only hospital in the county. Without it, the nearest hospital would be Mission Regional Medical Center.
“The district and the hospital are one and (the same) so if we were to lose our district, we are going to lose the hospital as well,” Vazquez said, pointing out that before voters could even decide on a joint hospital district, they would first have to dissolve the Starr’s existing hospital district.
“Any initiative that could contemplate the possibility of dissolving the Starr County hospital district will directly affect the functions of the hospital, the functions of the rural clinics as well as the ambulance service,” Vazquez said. “So we’re talking about a significant possibility of losing those services to our community if we were ever to entertain such an idea.”
So if Starr were to dissolve their district for the purposes of a joint one with Hidalgo County, they would be placing the future of their healthcare services in the hands of the voters in both counties. Even if most Starr County voters supported it, it’s unclear if their votes would be enough to carry the measure given Hidalgo County voters’ strong opposition to a hospital district in 2014 and 2016.
It was those two votes that led Hinojosa to believe the conversation should be nonstarter.
“The Hidalgo County voters have spoken on this issue of the healthcare district and said no and we’re to respect the vote of our taxpayers,” he said.
“In addition to that, I think it would be very unfair to allow the voters of Starr County to decide on Hidalgo County taxpayers having to pay more money, more taxes,” he said.
Starr County, though, has played that role in the past when it came to South Texas College.
In 2013, a $159 million bond issue to expand the college’s campuses in Hidalgo and Starr County was rejected by Hidalgo County voters but earned enough support among Starr County voters to pass regardless.
However, it’s unknown whether Starr County voters would do the same for a joint hospital district.
“What would happen with the people of Starr County?” Vazquez said of that hypothetical scenario. “We would have lost our district and we will not have a new district because that new measure wouldn’t pass. That’s a risk we cannot take.”
Despite that stance, Vazquez said he personally supported hospital district in Hidalgo County.
“There are so many positive aspects of having a hospital district and I support their efforts to have their hospital district,” he said. “What I do not support is joining with Starr County because Starr County has a lot, a lot to lose and possibly nothing to gain.”