Last April, El Paso County Commissioners approved a $152 million bond to build three new University Medical Center primary care clinics, and expand a fourth.
The issue is coming up again in debates for county judge between current County Judge Veronica Escobar and her challengers City Rep. Eddie Holguin and businesswoman Aliana Apodoca.
The question was simple, "Would you support the move to expand medical clinics" said one panelist during the West El Paso Tejano Democrats debate.
And the replies were swift. "Absolutely," said Escobar."I did and I will continue to."
Escobar was one of the deciding votes on April 8th that passed a $152 million bond without voter approval.
"It was an expansion of service," said UMC Spokeswoman Margaret Althoff-Olivas. "It wasn't new. It wasn't a new service like the Children's Hospital. So we didn't think it was an initiative that needed voter approval."
UMC's position was building three new clinics in the East, West, Central and expanding one in the Northeast was worth every penny. And the County Judge agreed.
"If we had not done that," Escobar said. "We are seeing our emergency costs at UMC, because of the spike in uncompensated care, we are seeing a $10 million increase every year."
Escobar is referencing the 260,000+ uninsured people living in El Paso. When they need medical attention, they go to the emergency room, a costly burden to taxpayers. Which is the purpose of UMC's six primary care clinics already built, and three more to come.
In theory, the uninsured will use the clinics, before resorting to the emergency room. It's a theory businesswoman Aliana Apodoca, a former UMC board member, isn't buying.
"I visited the clinics," Apodoca said. "They weren't busy. What I question was the cost-effectiveness of these clinics. That we were spending a lot of money on buildings, on staff etc."
Rep. Eddie Holguin, agrees.
"By creating these clinics all over town, what you do is add to the cost of an already rising tax rate," he said.
According to UMC though, these clinics aren't empty, and are rapidly growing.
"Fiscal year 2012 we saw a combined 52,240 patients in our clinics," Althoff-Olivas said. "Last years it was 66, 656. And this year the volumes are growing at a pace where we're on track to see in excess 83,000 patients."
The average cost to the taxpayer for these new clinics is about $21 per year. Whether or not it's worth it will have to be decided by the voter on election night, March 4th.