State Sen. Watson, UT's Powers make case for med school


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist JUSTIN TERRY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on June 22, 2012 at 8:54 PM

Updated Friday, Jun 22 at 10:02 PM

AUSTIN -- The project to create a new medical school and teaching hospital at the University of Texas has been championed by State Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and UT president Bill Powers, both of whom sat down with KVUE Friday to explain their vision.

"The estimates indicate that it would be about 15,000 jobs and roughly $2 billion in economic activity," said State Sen. Watson, who has been spearheading the effort since 2011. "That's an enormous boom to our economy."

Both say the project would improve health care quality and access in Central Texas, and Powers believes such an improvement could provide added incentive for businesses and business leaders to move to Austin.

"They look at health care," said Powers. "They want to be in places that are on the cutting edge and have robust health care systems, and by improving the health of Central Texans, and really Texans, it will have an impact on the economy in that way too."

Proponents of the project say the need stems from a shortage of doctors and specialists in Austin, as well as an interest in expanding medical research already in place at UT.

"What we don't have are the clinical trials, the place to make that research translational, that can work with the medical community," explained Powers, who says the project will help tie together various research arms and university assets in a practical environment.

In April, Seton Healthcare announced it will spend $250 million to replace the aging University Medical Center Brackenridge with a new teaching hospital, and UT regents recently voted to allocate $30 million per year for the first eight years and $25 million per year after that on a new medical school.

Some of the funding is still up in the air, and a total cost seems at this point elusive.

"One of the misconceptions is that tomorrow you scrape off some land and have to build a big building, slap the words 'Medical School' on the side of it and then, 'What's that cost?'" said Watson. "We have a lot of those assets in place. What we're identifying now is what is the gap, what is the last little part to get us over that bridge?"

"There's no precise way to say, 'What when we end up will be the total cost of that?'" agreed Powers. "That's going to end up being a very small part of the overall contribution this effort makes to health and to the economy."

"The biggest misconception is people are now coming to realize how much of the assets that go into a medical school, many of which we've talked about, are already in place," Powers said further. "It's bringing them together in a way that we get the synergies for that last step."

There could be a call for taxpayers to vote on a tax increase before financing is complete.

"I think there may be that possibility," acknowledged Watson. "That's one of the things that we're looking at, and I think that is one of the things that when we look at the new playbook, communities are going to find themselves in situations where they may need to make investments in order to get certain returns on their investments."

As an example, Watson points out available Medicaid matching funds up to $2.50 for every public dollar raised, however any decision on that is still a ways off and both believe any public money committed would be a wise investment.

"Not only do we improve people's health, but we improve our community as a whole," said Watson. "We will ultimately, I believe, save taxpayers' dollars because we will be able to take care of people in their neighborhoods, in their communities, through an integrated system of delivering health care so that they don't end up in the most expensive part of the medical facilities, an emergency department."

"On top of all of that," Watson said. "We will create a specific boom to the economy so that not only do we have personal health enhanced, but we have economic health enhanced."

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