Topeka — One of Kansas University’s top priorities during the recently completed legislative session was to get a commitment from state government to help construct a new health education building at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
The reasons for the building are three-fold: Kansas needs more doctors; the current medical building is outdated; and surrounding states have been opening state-of-the-art facilities, making it more difficult to get students at KU.
But the Kansas Legislature went the other way — cutting funding to the universities and essentially stopping the building project. Gov. Sam Brownback complained about the cuts approved by his fellow Republicans, but he signed them into law.
Now, KU officials are trying to figure out what to do next.
“We need to regroup and go back to the Legislature and see if they won’t help,” said Dr. Douglas Girod, executive vice chancellor for the KU Medical Center.
Years of planning
For several years, KU has talked about the need for a $75 million educational training facility with simulation technologies.
KU School of Medicine students on the Kansas City campus receive their training in a building that opened in 1976 and now needs millions of dollars’ worth of repairs.
The building is designed for lectures instead of the small-group learning required by modern techniques. The newer style allows more direct contact with faculty, and it is more technology-driven with interactive video.
In surveys of students who were accepted into the KU School of Medicine but chose to go elsewhere, the outmoded facilities are often cited as the reason.
All surrounding states have built new medical education buildings or upgraded their facilities recently.
And the proposed building would increase the class size at the Kansas City campus, allowing the school to churn out more doctors.
As of 2010, Kansas ranked 39th among the 50 states in active physicians per 100,000 population. And by 2030, 60 percent of the current physician workforce in Kansas will have left the profession.
As part of the higher education budget request to the Legislature, KU sought $30 million in bonds over a 10-year period for the building.
KU also sought the release of $25 million that was returned from the federal government as part of a FICA refund related to payroll taxes paid by the medical center in the 1990s.
In Brownback’s budget proposal, the governor whittled that request down to $10 million over two years, with $35 million in bonds.
But Republicans in the Legislature blew that up.
In the end, KU got $1 million for the project.
“That doesn’t do much to move it along,” Girod said. He said the funds will allow some site evaluation.
Without a greater state commitment, Girod said, private fundraising has ground to a halt.
“They’re not jumping in until the state comes through,” he said.
Critics blame KU
The move to greatly reduce funding for the building started in a Senate subcommittee chaired by state Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina.
Arpke said KU has itself to blame.
He said he went on the Kansas Board of Regents website and started looking at reports on the utilization of classrooms and teaching laboratories.
“Some of the reports through the Board of Regents came up all zeroes. That was kind of a red flag,” he said.
Those reports include categories such as how many average hours per week is a classroom used and weekly student contact hours. In the report for fall 2012, KU Medical Center reports N/A or not available in many of the categories.
Mary Jane Stankiewicz, a spokeswoman for the Board of Regents, said the problem with the reports is that KU Medical Center is a different kind of institution than the other regents institutions that are dominated by undergraduates.
Stankiewicz said the regents have recently requested that KU Medical Center fill out the report to the best of its abilities, and the school is working on that.
Arpke said the lines of communication between he and KU remain open, and that he doesn’t think delaying the health education building will “make or break this project.”
Doing more with less
Girod said KU officials will continue to make the argument that it has managed to do more with less, but that they need help from the Legislature.
In addition to putting the brakes on the health education building, the Legislature cut KUMC’s funding by $8.3 million over the next two years.
In 2008, before the effects of the Great Recession had taken hold, KUMC was allocated $127 million from the Legislature in its annual appropriation. Cuts since then, including the current fiscal year, have dropped that figure to $97.3 million. That is about a 24 percent drop in five years.
“Every state around us is investing in higher education and their medical education infrastructure,” Girod said. “We are the only ones going in the other direction. That puts us at risk.”