Health care symposium emphasizes need for education

McALLEN — Health insurance is not the key to a healthier life — this was a point panelists often emphasized during Tuesday’s healthcare symposium hosted by Futuro RGV.

The group is dedicated to informing the community on quality-of-life issues.

“You can’t solve the healthcare problems with just providing health insurance and making sure that people see a doctor,” said Dr. Victor Gonzalez, co-moderator of the event. “That’s important, but it needs to be much more comprehensive than that. You need to be preventive; you need to educate. … We need to have the economic opportunity for our community in order to be able to move forward.”

Education about diabetes prevention and treatment is considered to be among the most significant need for the region, according to Dr. Joseph McCormick, regional dean of UT Health School of Public Health in Brownsville.

McCormick, the keynote speaker for the event, noted the high level of diabetes and pre-diabetes in the Rio Grande Valley.

His program conducted studies with randomly selected families across the region to collect health data.

They found that 27.6 percent of adults have diabetes — three times the national rate — while 32 percent have pre-diabetes, which means a person has abnormal levels of glucose.

But health is mainly determined by social factors, McCormick argued.

“What that tells us is what happens in a clinic or a hospital is the end product,” he said. “It doesn’t determine our health; our health is determined (by) where we live and how we live.”

He argued that by educating themselves on how to live a healthy lifestyle, people can avoid diseases that are linked to being overweight or obesity, such as diabetes, heart disease and liver disease.

Carlos Cardenas, president of the Texas Medical Association, agreed that being informed on what he called healthcare literacy was most important.

“Healthcare is the only industry that’s trying to put itself out of business,” Cardenas said. “The more we teach and the more our community learns what I call the greater bedside, then I don’t have to do as much of the bedside work that I do today if I can keep you from having to come to the hospital.”

Gonzalez said a lot of issues also stemmed from the fact that the Valley is a low-income region.

“You can’t combat disease if you can’t increase the income of the community, so we’re looking at increasing jobs — good jobs,” he said.

For impoverished areas like colonias, distance from clinics and lack of transportation are significant issues, according to Ann Cass, executive director for Proyecto Azteca.

Cass said the lack of sidewalks, or other recreational areas, leads to high obesity rates in children who grow up there. Their lack of transportation, on the other hand, impedes them from going to clinics when they need care.

Eddie Olivarez, the chief administrative officer for the Hidalgo County Health Department, agreed about the importance of transportation, but to him one of the most important things was the continuation of the 1115 Waiver Program.

The program, offered through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has funded $602 million worth of services, education and residency programs across the region through the UTRGV Medical School, Olivarez said.

“Seventy-two programs — $602 million — is coming to end,” he said. “We don’t know what the future holds; we don’t know what’s happening. To me, that is single-handedly the most important thing for us here at South Texas, the continuation of that program.”

The 1115 Wavier funds allows states like Texas that opted not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to nonetheless receive federal funds for programs that serve low-income populations. The funds, however, are only temporary.

Much of the national debate in recent months has focused on the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, by Republican legislators. However, prominent Democratic legislators have recently come out in support of a single-payer healthcare plan. This was among the topics panelists covered at Tuesday’s symposium.

Single-payer wouldn’t solve all problems, argued Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Center of Public Policy Priorities in Austin, but financial access to health care is a powerful piece of the puzzle.