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Future of Springfield’s physician training program uncertain

January 19, 2018

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — In the next two years, the University of Missouri School of Medicine planned to admit another 64 students into a relatively new physician training program in Springfield.

But with state funding up in the air, that is now in jeopardy.

“The goal is to have the four-year enrollment of the medical school to be around 128. We’re about halfway there,” Mun Choi, president of the University of Missouri System, told the News-Leader. “The question then becomes how many students should we accept for fall of 2018, given the cuts that we’ve experienced from the state.”

The Springfield News-Leader reports that in the state’s 2018 budget, the entire $10 million earmarked for MU’s Springfield Clinical Campus was withheld. The line item was zeroed out during a tight funding year that included back-to-back cuts for all of Missouri’s public colleges and universities.

Choi said MU kept the program afloat “using internal resources” this year — out of a commitment to existing students in the pipeline — but noted that funding model is not sustainable given widespread state cuts.

“It’s going to be very difficult for us, without continued support from the state, to maintain the program at the level we envision,” he said. “Right now, we’re in the evaluation phase to determine how many students we can recruit.”

During the Missouri legislative session that kicked off Jan. 3, MU and others plan to ask lawmakers to restore and protect funding for the Springfield campus by making it part of the university’s overall state funding amount.

“Our hope is that we’re able to convince the state leaders of the value of this program so that we can receive the $10 million as part of our core appropriation, as opposed to a line item, so this can be a sustained program,” Choi said.

The MU medical school expansion, which also included constructing the new Patient-Centered Care Learning Center in Columbia, is expected to add 300 physicians, 3,500 new health care jobs and $390 million annually to the state’s economy.

“It has been one of our top priorities in the last several years and will remain so this year,” said Matt Morrow, president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. “It is millions of dollars of impact to the Springfield community.”

Missouri and many other states are facing a critical shortage of physicians. Rural areas are expected to be the hardest hit.

Choi said the Springfield campus is a smart investment for the state.

“Starting a new medical school from scratch would require anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion,” he said. “To start a collaborative process by expanding an existing medical school, like Mizzou, and partnering with a region like Springfield, we’re able to train 128 medical students at a cost of $10 million a year.”

He added: “That is a significant savings to the state and yet it provides the state medical professionals that are needed.”

David Barbe, vice president of regional operations for Mercy Springfield, said training physicians in Springfield will make them more likely to stay in the area.

“We have a number of openings in the area that we’ve had trouble filling,” Barbe said. He said others are so busy they can no longer accept new patients.

Barbe, who is also president of the American Medical Association, said national studies predict a shortage of 100,000 physicians in the next 10 years.

“Mercy feels strongly that this campus can really improve the supply of physicians in southwest Missouri,” he said.

He said medical professionals are key to economic development because each office creates jobs, buys supplies and provides services. “Physician practices are a significant economic driver in a community.”

Planning for the Springfield campus started a decade ago. It has received strong and vocal support from CoxHealth and Mercy Springfield — both key partners — as well as the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.

Future physicians enrolled in the program learn from medical professionals inside the two health systems.

“Without Cox and Mercy, the program would not have been successful. This is not a program that we could have established with just the University of Missouri resources,” Choi said. “That partnership with those two institutions is key.”

Steve Edwards, president and CEO of CoxHealth, said a coalition of community leaders from the Springfield area worked together to establish the campus through MU. He said it represents a “fiscally conservative approach.”

“I can’t imagine a better investment,” he said.

Edwards said the MU medical campus will help this part of the state in many ways over a long period of time.

“The medical school location in Springfield can lead to more training programs, more residency programs,” he said.

Edwards said shortchanging the program now will only hurt prospective medical school students and future patients.

“We’ve come so far and achieved so much,” he said. “We’re really poised for the next step.”

CoxHealth recently presented five University of Missouri medical students with the first CoxHealth Springfield Clinical Campus Scholarships.

The scholarships are designed to support students who are studying at MU’s Springfield campus and training at CoxHealth through its partnership with MU.

CoxHealth made an initial contribution of $500,000, with plans to use the earnings from that investment to fund scholarships and create legacy scholarships in the future. The $4,000 scholarships were awarded to the following students: Nick Timmerwilke, Aundria Eoff, Rachel Plate, Savannah Davis and Derek Stokes.

“This campus came about because of a lot of effort, and these scholarships show that this goes beyond a partnership,” said Andy Evans, associate dean and chief academic officer of the Springfield campus, in a news release. “CoxHealth is reinvesting in the future of health care in this community and investing in students who come here to train.”

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Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com

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