UTRGV to open three primary clinics

EDINBURG — The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley received a $3.75 million grant to open three primary care clinics in rural South Texas.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through its Health Resources and Services Administration awarded the university the five-year grant that will be distributed in increments of $750,000 per year.

The funds will be used to create three Area Health Education Centers (AHEC), where students will partner with local entities to provide primary care for people living in underserved areas. One of those partners is Hidalgo County, which will be home to one of the three centers.

“We made the strategic decision to develop one AHEC in each of our three counties along the border,” Dr. John Ronnau said. “In Starr County, we’ll be working with the rural community called La Victoria. In Hidalgo County we’ve asked to work with San Carlos, and in Cameron County we’ll work with the Bob Clark Center, also known as Southmost.”

Ronnau, the senior associate dean for interprofessional education at the UTRGV School of Medicine, presented the grant to Hidalgo County commissioners last week, along with Veronica Gonzales, vice president for governmental and community relations, and Linda Nelson, senior director of clinical operations for the medical school.

“If it weren’t for the assistance of the mobile vans, some of these clinics, and the work being done, they wouldn’t have access to care,” Gonzales said about the services the school already offers residents living in rural areas. “And I think that’s been the goal for all of us — to improve access to good, quality care for people because we know prevention is the best way.”

This year, alone, students have treated more than 45,000 patients in hospitals and in colonias, Nelson said.

The federal government is very interested in getting young people working in healthcare in rural settings, Ronnau said.

Part of the grant requires the school to develop an AHEC scholars program in which students will enroll for two years and graduate with a certificate after they’ve successfully worked in the community.

At the center, students will work in intraprofessional teams and learn about social determinants of health, health disparities and cultural competence, Ronnau said.

“We’ll follow up to see if they actually go back to the rural communities to work cause that’s really what the federal government is very interested in, is diversifying our health care workforce and educating more students who will go back into our rural underserved areas to work,” Ronnau said.

UTRGV will match the grant and partner with the office of Hidalgo County Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios. Palacios will provide a facility for the center, which is set to begin operations September 2018.

“The benefits that they’re giving our rural population is impeccable — especially in areas where they’re very detached to more urbanized areas,” Palacios said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Nlopez@themonitor.com