Health center battles financial troubles

Erin Ghere

The Academic Health Center was financially on its last leg last spring. Even after dipping into reserve funds, officials were forced to reduce class sizes, number of students in residency and cut faculty positions to prevent a crisis.
Legislators recognized the Medical School’s need and allocated $8 million in mid-May. The funding has helped, but not enough.
“We are grateful,” said Cynthia Hansen, the school’s community relations director. “But we need more.”
Seven health professional schools are under the Academic Health Center umbrella, including the Medical School, the School of Dentistry and the School of Nursing.
Health center officials plan to focus on the ongoing financial needs of those schools. With the Legislature’s allocation, the health center will receive about $8 million each year for the next 25 years from a newly created health education endowment.
But even the long-term funding won’t cover the school’s costs, said Frank Cerra, a health center senior vice president.
There are larger problems, Cerra said, that have manifested after years of small legislative appropriations.
As a result of financial hardships, the Medical School has reduced the number of faculty members by 19 percent in the past few years, Cerra said.
The bulk of this year’s state funding helped pay faculty members who teach in clinical settings, Cerra said. Money was also invested into several focused areas of study, including genomics and stem-cell research.
Health center officials directed a small portion of the funds toward interdisciplinary education and new areas of study within the health center, including complementary care, spirituality and cultural sensitivity.
Cerra said it is too early to tell if the Legislature’s funds will help the health center get back on its feet.
The health center was stretched as far as it could be, said health center spokeswoman Christine Roberts last spring.
The Medical School continues to draw from University reserves, although other professional schools at the University have balanced budgets, Cerra said.
“We are getting to the point in the Medical School of having to raise tuition and consider cutting back on programs,” he said.
Health center officials met Wednesday night for a new Board of Regents committee meeting formed to focus on ways to make the health center financially sustainable in coming years. The group will also work to retain top professors and keep abreast of new technology.
Cerra said the Medical School would like to solicit legislative funds to expand health professional training in pharmacy, a field with a shortage of practitioners in the state.
“We are now devising a legislative strategy because we’re very concerned that we need more funding,” Hansen said.

Erin Ghere covers faculty and state government and welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3217.