In Context: Barack Obama's call for a veterans hospital in the Rio Grande Valley

This YouTube video of Barack Obama speaking at the University of Texas-Pan American in February 2008 includes comments about the "need" for a Veterans Administration hospital "right here in the valley."

Addressing veterans gathered in Austin, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott announced he’d sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling on the second-term Democrat to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to place a Veterans Administration hospital in the Rio Grande Valley near the Texas-Mexico border.

Indeed, a crowd member's video indicates Obama said at a February 2008 rally in Edinburg that "we need a VA hospital right here in the valley."

Seven years later, the VA hospital closest to the valley is still in San Antonio, more than 200 miles away.

Then again, a VA spokesman told us the number of valley residents who go there has slid because the agency stepped up available services in the valley, which consists of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties near the Texas border with Mexico.

In this "In Context" story, we're sharing what Obama evidently said and subsequent federal actions.

But let's start with Abbott’s recent letter to the president.

What Abbott said

Abbott’s Jan. 30, 2015, letter asked Obama to "renew your efforts to create an inpatient facility and urgent care center to meet the critical medical needs of veterans in the Rio Grande Valley."

The letter continued:

"According to the VA, the Rio Grande Valley is home to tens of thousands of veterans. And, yet, veterans in the Valley needing critical inpatient care must travel hundreds of miles to the closest VA inpatient facility dedicated to serving veterans. The Rio Grande Valley also lacks a VA facility dedicated to the urgent care of veterans. New, expanded facilities providing inpatient and urgent care are vital to meeting the health care needs of our veterans in the Valley.

"Support for additional health care facilities for veterans in the Valley is not a partisan issue. The call for Washington to establish a full service VA hospital in the Valley echoes across the political aisle. Earlier this year, two Democratic congressmen from the Rio Grande Valley called on Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to visit the Valley to see firsthand the desperate need for additional VA health care facilities."

Abbott went on: "Moreover, in 2008, you also recognized the need for such health facilities when, as a senator, you co-sponsored a bill filed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would have provided a full-scale hospital in the Rio Grande Valley. That same year, as a presidential hopeful campaigning in the Valley, you were clear: ‘We need a VA hospital right here in the Valley. People don't need to be driving 200 miles.’"

In April 2008, Obama signed on as a co-sponsor to a proposal that had been introduced in July 2007 by Cornyn and fellow Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to require the secretary of Veterans Affairs to decide what kind of facility would best meet the "acute inpatient hospital" needs of veterans in "Far South Texas," defined as two dozen counties basically running from Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast south and west to Laredo: Aransas, Bee, Brooks, Calhoun, Cameron, Crockett, DeWitt, Dimmit, Duval, Goliad, Hidalgo, Jackson, Jim Hogg, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kleberg, Nueces, Refugio, San Patricio, Starr, Victoria, Webb, Willacy, and Zapata. It was referred to a committee and died.

To our inquiry, Patricia Guillermo, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-McAllen, provided a Jan. 13, 2015, letter from Hinojosa and other House members from the Texas-Mexico border region urging Obama to call for a VA hospital in deep South Texas in his then-awaited proposed federal budget. That letter says the request to put a hospital in the valley originated four decades ago.

Obama in 2008

We asked Abbott’s office about where the governor picked up on Obama’s "200 miles" comment and didn't get an answer.

Next, we asked Carlos Sanchez, executive editor of The (McAllen) Monitor, a valley newspaper, if Obama promised a hospital. By email, Sanchez pointed out what appears to be a crowd member's video taken of Obama when he rallied students outdoors at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg in the valley on Feb. 22, 2008. At the time, Obama and fellow Sen. Hillary Clinton were battling for their party’s presidential nomination; the Texas Democratic primary loomed.

According to the video, Obama initially said he’d do a good job of supporting the military. Then he launched into how he hoped to improve conditions for veterans at home.

Our transcript shows Obama saying:

"And it means we treat our troops and our veterans properly when they come home. No more homeless veterans, no more waiting for disability payments, no more long lines at the VA.

"We need a VA hospital right here in the valley so that people no longer drive four hours, five hours, just to get the services that they have earned. We have to treat everybody with dignity and respect. They have earned our respect."

By email, we asked the White House about Obama’s 2008 remarks and didn’t hear back.

Meantime, Hugo Martinez, a Harlingen-based spokesman for the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, agreed by phone there are no plans for a VA hospital in the valley; he noted a 2007 study commissioned by the agency that predicted there wouldn’t be sufficient medical demands to justify a big hospital in the region. Nevertheless, Martinez said, changes occurred stepping up services available to area veterans and reducing the flow of patients to the Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio. According to Rand McNally’s mileage calculator, that hospital is about  240 miles or a four-hour drive from 1201 West University Drive in Edinburg--UT-Pan Am’s address.

"We are fulfilling the needs of the veterans here in the valley," Martinez said.

He cited these developments:

  • A VA outpatient clinic, primarily offering primary care, opened in Harlingen on Oct. 2, 2010 and has had more than 10,000 "active users," meaning patients visiting at least twice over a year;

  • Since 2010, the agency has had contracts with valley hospitals--Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen and Brownsville plus South Texas Health System in McAllen and Edinburg--for inpatient and emergency care. (A federal audit released in June 2014 revealed one of the VA facilities in Harlingen averaged a 145-day wait for new patients seeking specialist care, then the nation’s worst backlog, according to news accounts. Harlingen’s center also ranked second-worst nationally for new patients seeking primary care, at 85 days, according to the audit.)

  • A VA health care center, providing ambulatory surgery and some specialty care, opened in Harlingen in early 2011;

  • An agency outpatient clinic in McAllen moved to a larger location, opening in April 2014, serving more than 10,000 patients a year.

Is there no need for a valley VA hospital?

In the fiscal year that ran through September 2014, Martinez said, about 354 valley veterans drove to the hospital in San Antonio for care. In contrast, 514 valley veterans sought treatment at the San Antonio hospital in 2013; 722 in 2012; and 2,975 in 2011, he said.