U wants state funding for health care

$34.5 million of the University’s biennial budget request would address health disparities and an aging population.

Blair Emerson

University of Minnesota health leaders want to tackle the state’s health care shortfalls — but they say they need more state funding to do it.

The University is requesting $34.5 million from the state Legislature in its 2016-17 biennial budget. If allocated, the University says the money would help address shortages of health professionals, improve care for the elderly, strengthen research in chronic diseases and increase the public’s access to health care resources.

Minnesota’s changing demographics, health care disparities and reformed health care models are the leading motives behind the school’s request, known as the “Healthy Minnesota” initiative.

If the state provides the funding, it would go toward increasing scholarships and geriatric training for students. It would also boost University research of chronic diseases, like cancer and heart disease.

“We play a very important role in the health of Minnesota, and we do that by educating and training about 70 percent of the health care professionals in the state,” said Terry Bock, associate vice president and chief of staff at the University’s Academic Health Center.

By 2020, the number of older Minnesotans, or people age 65 and older, will outnumber school-age populations.

Because of this, the demand for health care will increase, Bock said, and the state will see growing numbers of people retiring from the current health care workforce.

About $5.75 million of the University’s request is designated for addressing specific workforce needs, like geriatrics.

“We need to do a much better job in terms of preparing our students and current practitioners in the care of the elderly,” Bock said.

Dr. Robert Kane, a professor at the University’s School of Public Health and director of the Center on Aging, said the availability of well-trained academic professionals is in short supply, adding that few investigators are skilled in clinical care and aging research.

Students need specialized training to diagnose and care for the elderly, Bock said.

“We are way behind the curve in this,” he said. “We also need to recognize that we’re playing catch-up; that basically, most academic health centers have already invested — in many cases substantially — in geriatrics.”

As the state’s population ages and retires, demand for health care professionals is expected to jump.

“What we do know is we certainly have a shortage of primary care providers,” Bock said, “and we know we have some very immediate needs. And that’s actually how we built this whole proposal — around the workforce.”

About $10.25 million of the University’s request is for revamping curriculum — which includes efforts to shorten the time it takes for students to graduate — and finding additional training sites for students, Bock said.

Some of the workforce shortages also include rural dentists and psychiatrists, he said.

Another $3.75 million of the University’s request would address diversity in the health professional workforce. Of that amount, $1.75 million would go toward pipeline programs designed to recruit students from underrepresented communities.

“[The workforce] is not as representative of the diversity of the state as we should be,” Bock said.

Of the 170 students who enrolled in the University’s Medical School in 2013, 41 were “multicultural” students, according to school data.

“We have a number of people [from underrepresented communities] in our pipeline program that are really great, talented Minnesota students that we want in our Medical School … and other institutions give them full scholarships,” Bock said, adding that the Medical School offered full scholarships to only two students this year.

In an effort to address some of the health care disparities in the state, including in its ethnic, tribal and immigrant communities, the University is requesting $3.75 million for a public electronic health care database to hold information on topics like health care options and chronic diseases.

Known as the Minnesota Electronic Health Library, it would be a more extensive WebMD and ensure citizens’ access to University information.

“Everybody in the state should have access to some key resources that would help us address these disparities,” said Janice Jaguszewski, associate University librarian and director of the Health Sciences Libraries.

Jaguszewski became director of the libraries three years ago. Since then, she’s noticed an influx in people seeking this type of information.

The University would partner with Minitex — an alliance of academic, public, state government and other libraries — and the Electronic Library for Minnesota to create the database, Jaguszewski said.

“I was struck with how frequently people would call me and ask for access to the Health Science Libraries’ online resources when they were not students, staff or faculty,” she said.