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Operation Lone Star Brings Emergency Medical Care To Border

David Martin Davies
Operation Lone Star provides free emergency dental care to Mission, Texas residents.

The Rio Grande Valley along the Texas Mexico border is one of the most impoverished regions in the nation. For many who live there receiving quality health care is not a possibility. But last week Operation Lone Star provided many with a chance to get needed medical treatment.

Credit David Martin Davies

There are two rows of portable dental chairs along the baseline at the Palmview high school gym in Mission, Texas. The chairs are filled with patients - many are having extensive work done on their teeth after a lifetime of neglect.

“They live with this pain for many years – some people don’t know what it’s like to live with pain on their teeth,” said Dr. Joshua Liescheski, a faculty member of Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry.

“We are either pulling teeth that can’t be saved or filling those that we can hopefully prevent from getting worse,” he said.

This is part of Operation Lone Star which every year for one week brings emergency medical treatment to this impoverished area. And resources are limited said Blanca Cantu, the La Joya ISD public relations officer.

“Dental slots – were 200 slots available – and vision - there were 50 vision slots available and they were all topped by 8 in the morning,” she said.

Credit David Martin Davies

Cantu is helping the Texas Department of State Health Services for this effort. She says people started lining up at the High School as early as 2 in the morning to get one of those dental slots. It’s been described as a scene reminiscent of Black Friday. But instead of people scrambling for discounted home electronics they are competing for health care.

“I’ve been here since three in the morning.”

15-year old Eduardo is here with his family. They are among the lucky ones and are being treated. I asked him why he came. He opens his mouth wide and points to the back of his teeth.

“To get my….(tooth? Molar? Wisdom tooth? ) Yah. (did they fix you?) Yah, they did good. It’s awesome.”

There were five locations along the Texas Mexico border for Operation Lone Star - from Brownsville to Laredo. They mainly delivered immunizations, diabetic screening and physical examinations. Last year 11 thousand people were seen.

Credit David Martin Davies

The Texas State Guard is one of the lead agencies because the core of this action is a military training exercise.

“The real reason the state supports Operation Lone Star is it is part of the practice and planning for how we treat a disaster.” said Brigadier General Doctor David Cowen, the Commander of the Texas State Guard Medical Brigade.

Credit David Martin Davies

“We are here as part of what is called the practicing the incident command system which was started by FEMA after 911 and Katrina to make sure that multiple agencies and multiple organizations come together is what is called the Unified Command,” he said.

The idea behind the training exercise is to work out the bugs in coordinating state relief agencies so when a major disaster hits Texas the state guard and others can react faster and more effectively. 

“But the side benefit and quite honestly the reason why most of us joined the Texas State Guard is because we are providing real medical care as part of that and we provide a lot of medical care. We see people who otherwise may not get medical care very often,” he said.

Credit David Martin Davies

So, all this free medical care that’s being delivered to this community during Operation Lone Star that’s just incidental and that irritates Sister Phyllis Peters the director of Proyeto Juan Diego.

“Well, when you have 70% of the people without health insurance they take what they can get,” Sister Phyllis said.

Proyeto Juan Diego is a non-profit that works to help low income families get access to health care. It’s located in the heart of Cameron Park, one the largest and poorest colonias in the United States.

Sister Phyllis is frustrated and she bangs her hands on the table as she talks. She said they used to participate in Operation Lone Star but stopped because she says it wasn’t doing enough to help the people with serious medical issues.

“I don’t mean to sound hard – but if you are going to screen them – you gotta provide a program that’s going to take care of them. How would you like to know that you have cancer but there’s nothing you can do? There’s no place you can go. Nobody will take you,” she said.

Operation Lone Star does try to direct people they find with serious medical issues to local social services. But the people don’t have health insurance, Medicaid or Medicare coverage. Sister Phyllis says these people have no options.

“That’s why we need expanded Medicaid – and if we don’t’ get that – which I know our legislature is not for that but then they’ve got to come up with something else,” she said.

That something else has been for Texas the 11-15 waver.

Because Texas didn’t expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act - Texas healthcare providers for the last four year have received billions of dollars from the federal government for treating the uninsured.

But the waiver expires in September 2016. And the federal government is indicating it won’t extend the waiver. It wants Texas to get with expanded Medicaid. Sister Phyllis says if the 11-15 money goes away – she won’t be able to offer real preventative health care that she provides now. And the annual line to get emergency treatment at Operation Lone Star is going to get a lot longer.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi