Merger talk riles Weslaco doctors

April 28, 2010 9:32 PM

WESLACO — Larry Cardenas found medical aid at the hospital just down the street when he accidentally crushed his foot with a mallet.

After a few trips to Knapp Medical Center for treatment of his wounds, Cardenas said, he wouldn’t be satisfied going anyplace else.

“I have quality care here in my own backyard,” he said during a rally outside the medical center, 1401 E. Eighth St., as he and other attendees wore T-shirts that read, “Our hospital is not for sale.”

“I want to stay here,” Cardenas said. “I don’t want to be forced to go to Harlingen or McAllen or Brownsville.”

Discussions over a possible consolidation of Knapp Medical Center in Weslaco and Valley Baptist Health System hospitals in Harlingen and Brownsville are in serious jeopardy after complaints from doctors, residents and community leaders in this city.

The two nonprofit health care organizations signed a memorandum of understanding earlier this month that allowed them to begin formal discussions to consolidate their operations into one health care system. Hospital administrators said at the time that consolidation would avoid duplication of costs, provide patients access to a broader range of services and streamline business operations.

But about three dozen Weslaco residents and doctors who protested the talks before Knapp’s board of directors met Wednesday said the consolidation could mean layoffs, a smaller tax base and loss of local control over the hospital.

Forty-three Knapp doctors included their names in an advertisement in The Monitor stating they were opposed to an alliance with Valley Baptist Health System. Those doctors are the most vocal opponents of the consolidation, but some 95 percent of the doctors who regularly practice at the hospital have indicated they were also opposed, said Beto Alanis, the hospital chief of staff who represents the doctors as an ex-officio member of the board of directors.

Doctors were alarmed by credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s bond rating for Valley Baptist, which was lower than Knapp’s, Alanis said. Doctors were also concerned that consolidation could cause Knapp employees to lose their jobs as some services shifted to Cameron County.

But Alanis said the doctors who actively petitioned against the consolidation are worried that it could affect the future of a hospital that has served area residents for nearly 50 years.

“We’re worried about having the citizens of Weslaco and the Mid-Valley lose control of their say in the future of Knapp,” said Alanis, an Hidalgo County native who was born at the hospital and always wanted to work there. “We don’t want to lose control of our hospital.”

The memorandum of understanding signed earlier this month is the first step in the consolidation. Before it’s completed, the hospitals must reach an agreement, obtain regulatory and government approvals and finalize the deal with bankers and others with financial interests in the deal.

Knapp spokeswoman Maggie Halaby said the memorandum only indicated that the boards of both hospitals would discuss the consolidation. Other hurdles also need to be cleared.

One would be gathering support from the city of Weslaco.

Mayor Buddy de la Rosa sent a letter to Knapp CEO James Summersett this week to question how a consolidation would affect investments the city has made in hospital facilities through the issuance of bonds. Relinquishing control or ownership of hospital facilities that were constructed with $60 million in bonds could violate agreements between the city and hospital, the letter states.

De la Rosa, who visited with Cardenas and other residents who protested outside the hospital Wednesday, said the city wants to ensure its interests are considered.

“We don’t want decisions to be transferred to other areas,” the mayor said. “We want to keep decisions here at our community hospital.”