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In letter to KU chancellor, officials share concern over cuts’ impact on Wichita medical program

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, May 13, 2013, at 9:02 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, May 13, 2013, at 9:06 p.m.

Possible cuts to the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita have prompted city, county and Chamber officials to write KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little to express their concerns.

Gray-Little has said that if the state cuts more funding from university programs, the Wichita medical school likely would be reduced from a four-year program to a two-year program. It was one of several cuts Gray-Little outlined for the state regents last month.

Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce President Gary Plummer said he invited Mayor Carl Brewer and Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Jim Skelton to co-sign the letter regarding reductions to the KU medical program in Wichita.

“We felt like it was important to have a united effort to demonstrate how important the school of medicine is to the economy and providing health services to a big part of the state,” Plummer said.

It would be a travesty to lose the four-year program at this point, Plummer said, especially after the community-wide effort to expand it.

The Wichita campus opened in 1971 to provide clinical training for third- and fourth-year medical students. In 2011, the program was expanded to four years in an effort to alleviate the state’s physician shortage – an expansion that was done without increased state funding.

According to a 2010 news release from the school, Wichita-area donors had up to that point contributed $2.7 million toward the expansion to a four-year program, including an $800,000 donation from the Kansas Health Foundation, and $200,000 each from Via Christi Health and Wesley Medical Center.

In part, the letter to Gray-Little said:

“We believe those partners and the entire community should be concerned to learn that a proposed 4 percent cut in funding would jeopardize what your partnership has built for this state, and that cutting the school back to a two-year program was the very first reaction from Kansas University.”

Gray-Little’s response was that they are committed to the Wichita campus and that “returning to a two-year program in Wichita was not ‘the very first reaction’ to the drastic cuts that have been proposed by the Legislature.”

Other areas for potential cuts at KU include eliminating the Salina medical education program, reducing the number of nursing students admitted, reducing the number of medical resident positions, eliminating at least 38 faculty positions in Lawrence and the possible non-renewal of the National Cancer Institute designation.

Plummer said her response was “enlightening and think impressed upon me and the Mayor and Chairman that this was not the only cut the Kansas University system would have to sustain depending on how the budget will be resolved.”

Garold Minns, dean of the KU School of Medicine-Wichita, said students who have started their training would be allowed to finish at their current location. The potential cuts would reduce class sizes from 211 to 175 per year system-wide, he said.

“That means fewer doctors all around,” Minns said. “With the aging population, health care law expanding insurance to a number of people who don’t have it now, and new technology and treatments, we anticipate a shortage of physicians.

“My biggest concern is what this means to the state as a whole in terms of access to care.”

Legislative push

The Kansas House has proposed a 4 percent cut – about $29 million in operational spending – for all regent universities next year, in addition to $18 million in cuts to salaries, the Associated Press has reported.

The Senate has proposed a 2 percent reduction, or about $15.2 million.

About 40 percent of the reduction in the state budget being discussed would come from higher education, and higher education is less than 15 percent of the budget, Gray-Little said.

Lawmakers are currently waiting on a new tax plan before dealing with the budget this week in Topeka.

Over the past month, Gov. Sam Brownback visited university communities to push his budget proposal, which would keep funding to higher education flat. He said current funding levels could be maintained by keeping in place the 6.3 percent state sales tax. It is set to decrease to 5.7 percent on July 1.

Tim Caboni, vice chancellor for public affairs at KU, said KU officials have been talking with as many legislators as possible to tell them they support Brownback’s plan.

“The Senate and House continue to go back and forth and at the end of the day, we are hopeful they see the wisdom of Gov. Brownback holding funding at least flat for higher education,” Caboni said.

While they would accommodate students who are enrolled for next year, Caboni said there have not yet been any decisions on how KU would accommodate students if Wichita’s program is reduced to two years.

“This is an incredibly difficult position for the students, families and communities that are really relying upon students to come to their towns,” Caboni said.

Plummer said he has been in contact with legislators about the issue of higher education funding but had not shared with them the letter to Gray-Little.

“I think we would certainly express to them the need to understand the governor’s concerns over the cuts to higher education and what the impact on the state might be,” Plummer said.

Brewer, who was a member of 4-Wichita, an organization that worked to expand the KU School of Medicine-Wichita program, said he had not personally reached out to any legislators about the issue.

At this point, KU’s Caboni said he’s “cautiously optimistic.”

“We’re all waiting with bated breath to see the outcome of this,” he said.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com.

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