Supporters, opponents tackle talking points before medical school vote

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist JOHN GUSKY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on October 30, 2012 at 6:25 PM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 30 at 6:41 PM

AUSTIN -- Practicing with high-tech medical mannequins at the University of Texas School of Nursing, future health care professionals will soon choose a medical specialty, and by extension, a home.

"If you picked a specialty and they don't really have a center for that here in Austin, then that means you're more likely to move around," student Randall Luce told KVUE at a media event Tuesday morning. 

"A lot of our students stay here. A lot of them go out across the state," said University of Texas President Bill Powers. "There is a critical shortage of doctors in the state and in some specialties we can build on in providing even better care and the safety net for underserved citizens."

Powers met with media Tuesday in part to dispel what he calls some of the biggest misconceptions regarding Central Health Prop 1 on the Travis County ballot. He says the idea the state's flagship university should have enough money to finance a new medical school by itself is just wrong.

"We are for affordable education, keeping tuition as low as possible. We are for keeping taxpayers' commitment as low as possible. On a per student per year basis, we are at the very bottom of funding," said Powers, who argues that the University of Texas's resources are stretched thin in comparison to flagship universities in other states. "In our comparison group, we are both a low tuition, low general revenue," explained Powers. "We include oil money in that calculation, and we're still at the bottom in that."

"UT's not the only one struggling for funds, and they need to realize that. The taxpayers are financially struggling as well," said Don Zimmerman with the Travis County Taxpayers Union, a political committee formed to fight the proposal.

Prop 1 would include a five-cent tax rate hike equivalent to $100 per year on an average $200,000 home, which would be used to purchase health care services provided by the new university teaching hospital and medical school.

Many have questioned whether Travis County truly faces a shortage of physicians. As KVUE noted earlier, data from the Department of State Health Services indicates Austin has the third highest ratio of direct patient care physicians (DPC) in Texas at a rate of 268.6 per 100,000 population. Supporters argue that opening a research hospital featuring more types of specialized care would address local shortages among specific patient populations which are currently underserved, as well as create additional resources for surrounding counties with fewer available physicians.

Meanwhile, Zimmerman counters with news reports from April 2011 indicating the University of Texas Investment Management Company, which manages the investment portfolios of the University of Texas and Texas A&M University Systems, invested roughly $1 billion of its $19.9 billion endowment in solid gold bullion.

"There's money for what's truly needed," said Zimmerman. "If there really is a doctor shortage, we don't have to raise local property taxes. The market, the corporations that have money, the University of Texas system that has a billion dollars of gold, there are plenty of resources to build that today without the local property tax subsidy."

So what if the proposition fails? Powers was hesitant to speculate on what the future prospects of a medical school would be in such a scenario, and remains insistent that any such plans would require some form of community funding.

"If there are other ways to get that done, we are open to that," Powers offered, while at the same time pointing out the challenges from the university's perspective. "That's hard to understand exactly where that money's going to come from. It needs to be a reliable source of funding, again, not to build the buildings or hire our faculty, but to compensate for the care that will be part of what the medical center does. That's got to be reliable, and that would be a challenge."

"The point of this is if we open up a new revenue stream as they're demanding, there will be no end to the escalations that happen, and we're already facing unaffordable taxes here in Travis County," said Zimmerman. "We just should not do this."

It's a debate that's grown more heated as the election approaches. Meanwhile, University of Texas medical students are watching with a clinical eye.

"You look at what's best for the patient," Luce said, relating the debate to his own medical philosophy. "We're looking at what's best for the community, so what's going to be the greatest benefit to them. That will be for each and every person to decide."

A decision will come soon enough.

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