Grinch in the Valley: Christmas, the Economy, and UTMB's Women's Cancer Clinic

By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
by permission

Christmas comes but once a year and indeed we all have so much to be thankful for. God bless us everyone. On the other hand, this column will begin by talking about the economy, which is contracting quarter by quarter.

Although gas prices dropping over the last months may cause a blip in consumer spending this Christmas, an AP story on Christmas Eve by Christopher Rugaber puts the possible blip into perspective. “The economy has been mired in recession since last December, dragged down by declining home prices and clogged credit markets. Consumers have lost trillions of dollars in household wealth as the stock markets and home prices have sunk this year.”

Evidence also suggests a slow recovery, even if the new administration were to have a plan. For instance, unemployment has been climbing; the week ending December 20th shows the highest number of new unemployment claims in 26 years. Recovering from this much unemployment will not be quick.

And turning to the January 2009 Harper’s magazine, just out, we find a major article: “The $10 Trillion Hangover: Paying the price for eight years of Bush”:

“In the eight years since George Bush took office, nearly every component of the U.S. economy has deteriorated. The nation’s budget deficits and debt have reached record levels. Unemployment and inflation are up, and household savings are down. Nearly 4 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared and, not coincidentally, five million more Americans have no health insurance. Consumer debt has almost doubled, and nearly one fifth of American homeowners owe more in mortgage debt than their homes are actually worth. Meanwhile…the final price for the war in Iraq is expected to reach $3 trillion.”

Let me shift from the general economy to a local issue. This local issue, however, presages something which will be true of the nation broadly: as serious economic constriction takes place, the wealthy may begin to whine, but the poor will be the ones suffering.

There have been meetings and public protests this December in the Rio Grande Valley dealing with the University of Texas Medical Branch cutting its services to a McAllen cancer clinic. (Further north, in Galveston, which has taken enough hits lately, UTMB laid off over 2,000 jobs.)

In McAllen, UTMB backed up a big truck and emptied out a small but vital cancer clinic serving thousands of local residents, most of whom are low income and indigent women. Because this was an important clinic, with a staff of eleven people serving the poor, it was disturbing touring the empty offices: a waiting room and fifteen rooms behind it (a lab, examination and x-ray rooms, offices) now all stripped. Additionally, in their hurry to move, UTMB may not have been careful with medical records.

State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa called the Texas System “callous” in its recent decisions, and the Texas Faculty Association said that the Regents have always known that the narrowly focused cancer clinic for indigent women couldn’t be a money maker. But to get comparable service, the poor now would have to go to Austin and other points for treatment. The closure will be “a virtual death sentence” for some of the women. (Many undocumented women are afraid to go north because of the checkpoints.)

I interviewed Ann Cass, the Chair of the Board of El Milagro, the center housing the UTMB cancer clinic:

Braune: Any comments for our readers?

Cass: I am very concerned not only with the decision to close this cancer clinic but with the manner in which it was done. It seems absurd that a clinic that was given a grant to increase the numbers of women participating in the cancer clinic two years ago would now be closing its doors to these very women. There is nowhere else in the Valley for women to go for some of these services. No communication was given to them regarding how to access their records if they are even able to find another physician to treat them.

Braune: Is State Senator Hinojosa right that UTMB has become “callous”?

Cass: Yes, it is a sad state of affairs that the University system chose to pull the carpet out from under the feet of the poorest of the poor, in an area that is medically underserved, that has no public hospital closer than 350 miles, and leaves no other choices for treatment for women with dysplasia. My only hope is that the El Milagro Clinic will be able to find resources to duplicate some of the services if the University won’t re-consider their decision. We also will need cooperation from the board certified OB/GYN specialists in the area, particularly those with LEEP certification.

Braune: Thus arises a New Year’s resolution for the Valley.

Texas Faculty Association blogged this entry. Thank you, TFA.

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