December 9, 2020 541 PM
PRESIDIO — Although Presidio city has existed for well over 300 years and has been a human settlement for more than 3000, the small border town in modern times has never had anything close to a hospital or emergency clinic. Instead, many residents travel to Alpine for emergencies, to Ojinaga for routine medical work and to El Paso or Midland-Odessa for speciality care.
Presidio has two medical clinics, but both close in the evenings and on weekends. Decades ago, the city was also served by a country doctor, said City Attorney Rod Ponton, who grew up in the region.
Still, Ponton said, that general practitioner “probably did a lot more things than he should have” and didn’t offer the “standard of care we do today.” And even back then, Presidio residents often traveled hours for medical help.
“How would the people of Marfa like it to have to drive to Ft. Stockton to see a doctor?” Ponton said. “That’s what the people of Presidio have to do.” In the United States, the closest hospital to Presidio is in Alpine, well over an hour away.
Now, those dynamics could be changing. After years of decrying a lack of medical care in Presidio, local officials say the city could gain a new urgent-care facility by early next year — even as soon as January.
On Wednesday, shortly after The Big Bend Sentinel went to press, Presidio City Council was set to discuss a new partnership that aims to bring telemedicine and after-hours care to the far-flung town. A number of groups are involved in or are in “advanced discussions” to join the initiative, Ponton said, including not only local clinics and hospitals like Big Bend Regional Medical Center and Preventative Care Health Services, but also regional institutions like Texas Tech.
With no contract or full agreement finalized by press time, the details of the new urgent-care program haven’t been fully settled. But according to city officials, the plan is for the program to launch as a telemedicine program staffed by Texas Tech doctors with the help of BBRMC, where patients will meet with doctors over video or phone to get medical care.
Presidio city is also getting involved, helping with grants and coordinating with their citywide EMS service, which hopes to reduce its number of emergency trips to Alpine. Ponton, the city attorney, hopes that the program will eventually have the capabilities to fly patients directly to big hospitals in cities like El Paso if they need a higher level of care than is available locally. And while Presidio city officials hope the facility will have its own building within around a year, they plan to start out by renting the local PCHS clinic during off-hours on nights and weekends.
Reached for comment this week, officials in Presidio city and county were excited about the new initiative. Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara, who for years called on regional groups like the Big Bend Regional Hospital District to provide better healthcare options to the border city, called the new facility “very badly needed.”
John Ferguson, the Presidio mayor, credited City Administrator Joe Portillo for helping organize the collaboration. Ferguson hoped the new clinic would not only save Presidio residents long hospital commutes but would also make the city more attractive to future residents.
“When we talk about the future prosperity of Presidio, it has to start with availability of healthcare,” Ferguson said. “The sooner we can offer more options in that regard, the more attractive we’re going to be for people looking to expand their business or open a business.”
Portillo has for years worked to improve emergency medical care in the city. He hoped the new program would allow residents to seek care more “efficiently, effectively, economically.”
Currently, he said, Presidio residents might have to set aside a whole day or more to drive to El Paso for specialty care. In emergencies, they often take ambulance rides to Alpine, racking up expenses for the city EMS service.
“I think this is the wave of the future,” Portillo said of the program. “I think it’s the solution to solving problems with access to rural health.”
Texas Tech and PCHS did not respond to requests for comment by press time. BBRMC declined to comment, though spokesperson Ruth Hucke did say that CEO Rick Flores would speak at the Presidio City Council meeting to “provide a local hospital perspective” on the program.
In an interview on Monday, Malynda Richardson, the city’s EMS director, estimated that, on average, around a third of the service’s hospital trips could be avoided if there were urgent-care options in Presidio, since some residents in medical crises don’t need emergency room care and instead just need to have their condition monitored. She hoped the program would “take some of that burden off of EMS,” reducing not only stress to ambulance drivers, but also city expenses.
“There are people that end up being taken to the hospitals simply because there’s not a closer option,” Richardson said. And “a lot of times, they go by ambulance because they don’t have any other way to get there.”