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Legislation aimed at expanding capacity for mental health services statewide signed by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month allocates $205 million to construct two new medical facilities in the Rio Grande Valley.
Of that money, $120 million will fund the construction of a 50-bed state hospital maximum security facility in Cameron County. The other $85 million will pay for construction of up to 100 inpatient beds by a licensed general hospital, with requirements seemingly restricting its location to Hidalgo County.
The funds for that facility come with the stipulation that the hospital possess a level 1 trauma designation, have fewer than 100 licensed psychiatric beds and be in a county with a population of over 300,000.
Both allocations are part of Senate Bill 30, which aims billions of dollars at constructing and improving mental health facilities across the state.
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, a co-author on the bill, called the Valley a priority in the state’s efforts to address mental health.
“We need more hospital beds for mental health treatment in the Rio Grande Valley. We have a shortage state-wide, and one of those regions identified is the Valley. There’s a great need for an increased capacity in mental health hospital facilities,” he said.
Hinojosa says the $120 million project also answers a significant need.
A report released by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission this year puts the waitlist for a maximum security forensic state hospital bed at an average of over 500 days.
“We have a long waiting list of prisoners that are being diagnosed with potential mental health issues, and they’re ordered by the court to be examined,” Hinojosa said. “They need to be in a secure hospital … that provides some protection and security.”
Hinojosa said that facility will be built at the Rio Grande State Center in Harlingen.
The fate of which hospital system receives the $85 million lies with the Health and Human Services Commission, Hinojosa said. Requirements on that allotment appear to bind it to Hidalgo County. DHR Health in Edinburg and South Texas Health System McAllen have the only level 1 trauma designations in the Valley.
DHR Health did not respond to requests for comment by press time. STHS declined to comment on the legislation.
Local officials, however, describe both investments as sorely needed in the area.
“That is fantastic news. That is really, really good news if we’re able to have a hospital of that size here in the Rio Grande Valley. Mental illness has become a huge issue, a huge problem,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said. “Many of our schools are complaining that COVID has had a big impact on children, and our jails are another issue.
“We have issues with mental illness among our prisoner population, so to have that type of institution will be a big help.”
Hidalgo County District Attorney Toribio “Terry” Palacios, who hadn’t heard of the legislation before this week, described more mental health hospital beds for the county’s inmates as direly needed.
Wait times for state hospital beds vary around the state. Palacios estimated the wait time for a bed at an eye-popping 900 days.
“That’s just not right, because they continue to deteriorate in there because of the atmosphere,” he said.
Incarceration, Palacios said, exacerbates mental health issues. He estimates there’s currently over 20 inmates at the Hidalgo County jail waiting for a spot in a state hospital.
Palacios described untreated mental health issues prompting cycles of misbehavior that ultimately leads to crime and arrests that treatment would make avoidable.
“It starts as juveniles,” he said. “These kids have mental health issues that we don’t realize, they get in trouble, they manifest bad behavior. We think they’re criminals and we put them in the system with the really bad kids, and they just start picking up those — they think they’re criminals.”
Palacios said a 50-bed facility for the whole Valley may still fall short of meeting the needs of local jails, though, Palacios said, it’s still a significant improvement.
“If it’s going to cover all four counties, that might not be enough, but it’s definitely a huge step in the right direction,” he said.
According to Palacios, county officials are also currently in the process of developing an outpatient strategy to address the needs of inmates with mental health needs.