BY JANET ZIMMERMAN | The Press-Enterprise
UC Riverside officials and local lawmakers were jubilant Thursday, June 27, after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the state budget providing $15 million a year in continuous, guaranteed funding for the university’s long-awaited medical school.
G. Richard Olds, dean of the new School of Medicine, said he is relieved that the stars finally aligned after four years and a very public struggle to secure state money.
“This was our best shot because we had new legislators, they were in the party in power and this is the first year the state wasn’t bankrupt. All those things worked for us,” Olds said.
The school — the first new public medical school on the West Coast in nearly 50 years — is hailed as a significant economic driver for the region. It also will help resolve a poor doctor-patient ratio and poor health outcomes among the region’s residents, he said.
The medical school, with its first class of 50 future doctors, starts Aug. 5, thanks to years of fundraising efforts by local hospitals, physician groups and others, he said.
The school already is stocked, staffed and ready to go, which was a requirement for accreditation in October. The faculty, including 16 basic science instructors and 120 medical doctors who will teach part or full time, has been hired, and human cadavers are ready for dissection. Four $350,000 patient simulators are ready to talk, play sick and throw up on the physicians in training.
The medical school would have opened even without a state contribution this year, but it would have been hard to sustain its operation, Olds said. The school raised $10 million in non-state support but will have to raise more, he said.
Brown’s approval of the budget caps nearly two weeks of negotiations and compromise. The key was restructuring the University of California’s bond debt, which generated about $80 million a year for the next decade. Much of the money from the restructuring will be used to support the UC retirement program — funds that otherwise would have come out of the UC systems’ budget.
The UC system also got an increase in its base budget of $125.1 million, which includes funding for the medical school.
“The creation and development of the medical school has been the vision of many at UC Riverside and in our community for many years,” said Jane Close Conoley, the university’s interim chancellor. “Today we reached a milestone for the health of our region and the future of UCR.”
California is third from the bottom when it comes to first-year medical school openings. The state has 17 slots per 100,000 population, almost half the national average of 31 per 100,000 people, UCR officials said.
Riverside County is the only county in the state with a population of more than 1 million but fewer than 100 physicians per 100,000 people, according to the California HealthCare Foundation. Riverside and San Bernardino counties have about half the primary-care physicians needed for their populations, and that gap is expected to widen as the population grows and as more Inland residents become eligible for medical coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
UCR officials credited state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, and Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, with helping build support in Sacramento for the medical school.
Roth said the medical school will create jobs in the health field and increase the area’s economic competitiveness.
Experts predict that the school could add $150 million per year to the local economy by 2021. And, eventually, the regional benefit of its research and training efforts could grow to more than $1 billion annually.
“This medical school will be a tremendous economic stimulus to our region, affording opportunities for research, biotech and creation of good jobs in Southern California,” Roth said. “This is huge.”
Olds called the $15 million-a-year cost to the state a bargain compared to other medical schools.
The next least expensive school in the country, the University of South Carolina in Greensville, opened with an annual budget of $36 million. A medical school at the University of Texas-Austin is opening in two years and already has more than $50 million in yearly state support, he said.
“We’re the most economical medical school in the United States,” Olds said.