Laredo hires consulting service to address medical underserved designation

City council again acknowledged Laredo’s ongoing medically underserved designation this week. 

Council discussed the retainment of health care consultants and the factors being targeted regarding addressing the health care needs of residents, including the possibility of building a Laredo area hospital district or municipal hospital authority.

According to Mayor Pete Saenz, funding for the consulting services has remained a factor, and the council discussed if COVID funding was available and if it could be used. Both he and Councilmember Marte Martinez said it is a priority item that needs addressing, and Saenz suggested to use bridge funds to pay the one-time fee of hiring the consulting firm.

Martinez made a motion which was approved to find the funding through a one-time withdrawal from the bridge fund to pay for the hiring of the consulting firm. The decision was unanimous.

They were not alone, Dr. Ricardo Cigarroa also emphasized the importance of addressing Laredo’s health care needs. Cigarroa said the pandemic magnified the struggles Laredo had been going through, and it is indeed a priority. 

In May, Healthcare Management Associates representatives presented their process after a preliminary meeting with stakeholders. According to the firm’s representative, Stephen Palmer, services would take approximately six months and cost approximately $225,000.

However, local physician Dr. Tyler King wrote in public comments there was no need to spend the $225,000 for a consulting firm when the city and health care professionals know a major issue is the health service staff recruitment and retainment. He continued to state it was due to not being able to provide the quality of life to residents.

“We all know the issue is staff shortages,” King stated. “Both hospitals have plenty of empty beds; as a resident physician here in our city’s largest health care system, I know it because I see it every single day. The issue is not more buildings, the issue is more human beings who are qualified to provide the services that we need.

“We have to give our native Laredoans a city that they want to come home to after they complete their training, and we have to create a Laredo that is dynamic and ready for the 21st century that allows us to recruit new people to come and stay in Laredo.”

King continued to state his concern regarding the consulting firm’s May meeting, highlighting that the representatives weren’t asked any questions about any extra information local health care experts don’t already know. He acknowledged the firm may provide better advice on funding mechanisms, but he believes it is a rush action taken by city council.

Regardless, Gateway Community Health Center CEO and co-chair of the Laredo Economic Development Healthcare Advisory Committee Elmo Lopez, recommended the approval and hiring of the Healthcare Management Associates consulting firm. He referenced the proposed study and said it would provide actionable items and recommendations so the city would one day remove the designation of being a professional health shortage area.

The committee indicated it is aware of the recruitment and retainment issues of physicians, nurses, therapists, etc., and he unanimously voted in favor of the consulting firm study looking into every possible option.

Rolando Ortiz, committee member, said one way to address that is a program looking into a skilled workforce to help provide the workforce, but it will not happen overnight. This would see collaboration between the school districts and higher education to encourage students to stay in Laredo and work in the health care fields with good paying jobs.

It is important to note both Cigarroa and former Health Authority Dr. Victor Trevino outlined the for-profit hospital’s need to monitor their bottom line and how health care professionals in Laredo get paid less than counterparts throughout the state.

Cigarroa mentioned earlier in the meeting despite doing the best they can, both Doctors Hospital and Laredo Medical Center, they have to look at their bottom line and have a responsibility to their shareholders to make a profit.

Trevino believed the difficulty in retaining nurses is due to the disparity of salary, which sees nurses move to other areas where they get paid better. He also noted despite the differences, the cost of living in Laredo is similar to that of San Antonio.

During the pandemic, low local staff resulted in state staff being brought to Laredo to assist with the surge of COVID cases and hospitals were able to accommodate staff without staff collision issues.