Legislative Roundup: Med school snubbed despite physician shortage

By Carlos Mayorga

A request from officials at the U School of Medicine for funding to expand in response to a nationwide physician shortage will go unaddressed for at least another year.

Officials from the U lobbied the Legislature for $10 million to allow for a major expansion of the medical program, which would have brought more faculty and medical students to the U, but the Legislature did not fund the expansion.

As the only school of medicine in the state, school officials told legislators they could expand the school’s student body and faculty by 30 percent.

David Bjorkman, dean of the School of Medicine, said that although he is unsure of exactly why the school was not chosen to receive the money, he speculates the failure of a cigarette tax bill and a general lack of funding available were key.

A cigarette tax, proposed by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, would have taxed each pack of cigarettes sold in the state an additional 50 cents. Ray said the tax would have provided the medical school with $10 million. The bill failed to gain momentum in the Legislature.

Despite a Dan Jones poll from last November that indicated about 82 percent of Utahns would be in favor of the cigarette tax, lobbying from tobacco companies and legislators’ reluctance to add new taxes might have been partially responsible for the bill’s failure in the final week of the session, Ray said.

“The general public is funding Medicaid $104 million a year for people who smoke, so I don’t have a problem making smokers pay back into the system,” Ray said.

Ray said he will reintroduce the bill next year, but instead of a 50 cent per pack tax, he will increase the proposed tax to $1 per pack, instead.

“It’s fair to increase tobacco costs and put it toward health care,” Ray said. “I am going to work in depth this summer and get the public behind it.”

Utah is one of the states hit hardest by a physician shortage that has affected the nation over the past several years. Only 165 physicians are available per 100,000 Utahns — a ranking that puts Utah 44th in the country for its patient-doctor ratio.

As more Utahns are projected to retire in the coming years, more people move into the state and the birthrate remains high, Utah will have to address the physician shortage, said U spokeswoman Coralie Alder.

The medical school proposed the expansion because this year was the first time in 30 years it could accommodate growth, Bjorkman said. The Spencer F. and Cleone P. Eccles Health Sciences Education Building, which opened in 2005, is primarily used for classroom space and has the capacity for more students and faculty.

Bjorkman said that although the School of Medicine is ready to help address the physician shortage, the school will continue to operate as competitively as ever without the funding.

“The medical school doesn’t need the funding to be successful,” Bjorkman said. “We’re disappointed because we thought it was the right time, but the medical school will continue to be successful the way it is. Hopefully next year they will reconsider.”

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