The state of Texas will build a $97 million comprehensive cancer center on the Medical Center of the Americas campus, a large expansion of cancer treatment available in El Paso.
A state budget put forward by a House-Senate conference committee includes $65 million to begin planning and construction of the outpatient cancer treatment center. The Senate approved the budget Friday. The House is expected to do so before the legislative session ends May 29, sending it to Gov. Greg Abbott for his consideration.
“It’s going to be transformative. In all of the research that we did, we’re the only urban area in the state of Texas that doesn’t have a cancer center. And so ultimately, we saw in the data that people were actually dying because they couldn’t access the health care that they needed,” said state Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, who spearheaded the cancer treatment center effort.
“We’re hoping that not only will it save lives, but it’ll create other opportunities for our region to continue to be a health care hub for the Southwest,” she said.
González said the effort to seek state funding for a cancer center in El Paso began after a planned $346 million bond issue for University Medical Center – which included money for a cancer center – was blocked in October by a petition that would have required an election to approve the bonds.
The request for state appropriations for the cancer center proceeded quietly for months. Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso did not even include the cancer center in its appropriations request, said Dr. Richard Lange, the school’s president.
“This wasn’t on my legislative request. If you asked me whether I thought I could have brought this to the table I would have said no,” Lange said. He credited González, vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, for the idea of pushing for the state appropriation.
“It was my one goal this session. We didn’t want to make it really public because we didn’t know if we could actually get it done, but we’re really excited,” González said.
She said El Paso will come back to the Legislature in two years for the remaining $32 million to complete the building.
The cancer treatment center was “a hallmark project in our bond proposal last fall,” UMC CEO Jacob Cintron said in a statement.
“This funding begins the journey to fill an incredible need and minimize/begin to eliminate the need for El Pasoans to seek care elsewhere,” Cintron said.
He credited the leglislative delegation, El Paso County Commissioners Court and the UMC Board of Managers for pushing forward with the plans for the cancer center.
Lange said the 90,000-square-foot building would house comprehensive outpatient treatment such as chemotherapy, radiation, imaging and other services.
“As you know, there’s no place here that provides comprehensive care where you have all the imaging that you need, PET scanning, radiation therapy, infusion center, treatment rooms, and patient follow up all in one area,” he said.
He said the center will reduce the need for El Pasoans to travel hundreds of miles for cancer treatment.
“If somebody needs to have a surgical excision of a cancer, whether it be a breast cancer or lung cancer, colon cancer, they can go to any hospital they like and have that done and then receive their outpatient care or continued follow up and outpatient care at this comprehensive cancer center,” Lange said.
“It would also allow us to bring clinical trials to the area so that patients that have either advanced or unusual cancers or haven’t responded to cancer therapy, it would allow us to bring clinical trials here to El Paso to enroll them to receive state of the art cancer care,” he said.
Lange said UMC contracted with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to do an inventory of El Paso’s cancer treatment needs. That assessment played a key role in shaping the eventual appropriations request.
“So they’ve actually laid out how many rooms they think we should have, how many rooms for an infusion center, how big the imaging center would be, and it’s kind of a blueprint based upon their extensive experience and analysis of our community,” he said.
Groundbreaking for the facility could take place in the next year, with the building opening 18 to 24 months later, he said.
Lange said additional money needs to be raised to equip the facility and recruit additional oncologists and other medical staff. But he said El Paso property taxpayers will not have to pay for the facility.
State Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, who voted for the state budget on Friday, said the cancer treatment facility will meet a key community need.
“Despite having the second-highest cancer incidence rate among Texas urban counties, El Paso currently lacks a comprehensive cancer treatment center. This state investment will bring much-needed cancer care while alleviating a burden on local taxpayers,” Blanco said in a statement.
The budget bill also includes $50 million for the El Paso State Psychiatric Hospital; $10 million for a new regional public safety headquarters; $10 million more to repair the Wyler Aerial Tramway; $5 million for improvements at Hueco Tanks; $10 million more for litigation over water from the Rio Grande; $4 million to repair and renovate Magoffin Historic Home; $1 million for intervention for at-risk youth in El Paso; $250,000 for an El Paso law school feasibility study; and $420 million in total funding for UTEP and Texas Tech’s El Paso campus.
This story was updated at 5:20 p.m. May 26 to include comments from University Medical Center.