The coronavirus did not stop for the holidays, and neither did South Texas politics.
Hospital administrators, county officials, mayors and lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels spent the Fourth of July weekend trying to determine once more how to best divvy up the $151 million in federal relief funding Hidalgo County received earlier this year.
This occurred as dozens of infected residents maxed out capacity at local hospitals and as hundreds of medical staff from across the state arrived to help.
The discussions happened mostly over phone calls and text messages after the heads of local hospitals announced last week that they were struggling to keep up with the costs associated with a recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, asking Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez and the four county commissioners to share some of those federal relief funds with them.
The problem is, county commissioners already earmarked those funds last month following a heated dispute between county officials and local mayors who disagreed with the county’s initial plans to distribute the money.
But now those plans could be upended as Hidalgo County continues to see a huge spike in cases.
“We keep adding ICU beds and we have to work overnight construction-wise to meet the needs of our ICU doctors,” construction magnate and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance board manager Alonzo Cantu said Saturday.
Cantu spent much of the Fourth of July weekend trying to coax officials and lawmakers into helping Hidalgo County hospitals meet the rising demands.
“This is not a DHR story,” he said Saturday. “This is a story for the community.”
The physician-owned hospital in Edinburg has already spent $15 million to create more capacity for COVID-19 patients — it now has 210 ICU beds — and is preparing to spend another $3 million for renovations and equipment, Chief Operations Officer Marissa Castañeda said Monday. And on top of that, DHR estimates it has lost about $34 million in revenue as a result of the governor’s orders to pause elective surgeries.
But it’s not just DHR that is shouldering the costs to keep up with the recent spike and revenue loss.
South Texas Health Systems — which operates four acute care hospitals and six freestanding emergency rooms, among other medical facilities in Hidalgo County — is also investing in creating capacity and meeting the community’s needs, STHS Regional Vice President Charles Stark said Monday.
“There are CARES Act funds that are coming from the federal government directly to the hospitals, but those funds are not keeping pace, I guess I would say, with the additional infrastructure changes that we’re seeing many hospitals are undertaking. Whether they’re converting areas of their hospital into patient care areas or they’re constructing new areas for patient care,” Stark said.
And while he couldn’t provide an estimate on their spending, he did provide examples of costs STHS hospitals are incurring.
McAllen Medical Center converted four additional units into negative pressure rooms and purchased a number of High Efficiency Particulate Air filters, which are machines that can be taken into rooms to create a super filtration system to remove the virus from breathable air, Stark said.
Edinburg Regional Medical Center is also converting the second floor of its children’s hospital to take care of adults and equipping it with negative pressure rooms for individuals with COVID-19, as well as purchasing additional cardiac monitoring systems.
“So that’s about a $400,000 expenditure to get the capability to monitor patients’ hearts across that entire floor of 35 or 36 rooms. So those are just some simple examples of things that have been put into place to accommodate this expansion of capacity in response to the COVID-19 surge,” Stark said. “And if you call the other hospitals, they’ll be able to give you lots of examples of how they’re incurring expenses to respond to the pandemic and to protect the community that we don’t typically experience.”
Representatives from Rio Grande Regional Hospital, Knapp Medical Center and Mission Hospital requested more time Monday to gather information before making a comment.
Cantu said he disagrees with the way the county allocated the relief money, given the current circumstances.
“I mean $20 million to increase internet right now while the people are dying? What the f—,” he asked rhetorically. “And then supposedly you have to spend it between now and the end of the year — all this money? I think there are some good causes there … but I just don’t see it.”
Cantu argues the money is meant to help save lives and should be spent accordingly.
“And I don’t think they’re doing a good job,” he said about county officials. “They’re hoarding the money and they’re not being specific as to how it’s going to be spent. I think that’s a problem.”
He called for more transparency and accountability.
“Are we going to be able to track the money and figure out that it’s going to what it’s intended to, and not to help people that are just taking advantage of the system,” he asked. “…Cause I’m tired of the way things have been done here, and that’s why I don’t get involved with local politics. It needs to be fair across the board. This is not a DHR issue. That’s what they’re trying to make it sound like, but it’s not.”
Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez did not return a call seeking comment Monday, but he said last week he was open to the idea of helping hospitals.
But just where that money is going to come from remains to be seen.
Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina said he was open to sharing relief monies with the hospitals — as long as the funds don’t come from the $132 per capita allocation that commissioners already promised municipalities.
That sentiment, however, is likely to strike up another dispute between mayors, county officials and hospital administrators because county commissioners previously said that $18 out of the $132 per capita the cities are supposed to receive would be put into a reserve fund, and that’s the reserve fund that Cortez appears to want to use to support hospitals.
“The judge is sitting on an additional $42.49 per capita,” Molina said, referencing the difference between the $174.49 per capita Hidalgo County received and the $132 rate the cities are receiving. “That’s the money that I am open for discussion that should be going to the hospitals or should be at least a discussion.”
Mayors in McAllen, Pharr and Mission did not return calls seeking comment Monday, but Molina said he spoke with them over the weekend and they expressed the same sentiments.
And should county commissioners ask for a portion of Edinburg’s allotment, “It will be an issue because that money’s already been earmarked and spent on the city of Edinburg,” the mayor said.
And as far as DHR is concerned, “we’re going to invest,” Cantu said, “whether we get reimbursed or not.”
Hidalgo County commissioners are scheduled to meet Tuesday to continue their discussions on coronavirus relief matters.