University Health System employees prepare flu shots during an outreach event in October 2020 at Nelson Wolff Stadium. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County’s hospital system will create a public health division to focus on underserved communities surrounding San Antonio, county officials said Tuesday.

The new University Health division plans to utilize two mobile health units, four health centers and a health task force to address health disparities and improve health care access in Bexar County. The move comes two years into the pandemic, which exposed how underlying health conditions worsened COVID-19. As of Tuesday, at least 5,298 county residents have died since the beginning of the pandemic. 

The public health division will be funded by $60 million in American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, money. 

“Unfortunately, public health access is not equal across the county,” said George B. Hernández Jr., University Health president and CEO. “Certain areas of unincorporated Bexar county need additional support.”

The division will “complement, rather than duplicate” the work that Bexar County and the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District does, commissioners said. 

One of the first steps in the initiative is establishing a clinic near Texas A&M University-San Antonio in South Bexar County, an area that Precinct 2 Commissioner Justin Rodriguez described as a “public health desert.” 

The clinic aims to offer affordable access to health care and will serve as a “public health headquarters” for University Health and the county, Rodriguez said. Commissioners also expressed interest in examining the county’s other outlying areas for gaps in access to health care facilities.

“Every taxpayer here in Bexar County pays something to the University Health System, so the value in return should be having access as cheaply and as affordable as possible,” Rodriguez said. 

“We have to invest [funds] in a way that helps transform the delivery of public health initiatives in our community,” Rodriguez said. “That means not doing the same things with more resources, but expanding and reimagining how we can take these initiatives to the doorsteps of families who need it the most in our community.”

The Commissioners Court, along with University Health, also will create a nine-member public health advisory board that will double as a task force to provide public health input and restructure existing functions. 

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores pointed to research showing that better access to educational attainment is tied to longer life expectancy. With that goal in mind, the division can use mobile health units to teach residents about health care, providing free kidney screenings and other outreach where residents need it.

“This investment in a new public health division of the Bexar County Hospital District is about changing the statistical trajectory of health outcomes for Bexar County residents,” she said. “Bexar County’s investment is about no longer allowing a person’s zip code to determine his or her health outcomes, but working for health equity for all of their county.”

Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.