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UND seeks to increase state funding for med school by 68 percent

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UND seeks to increase state funding for med school by 68 percent
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UND is seeking a massive increase in state funding for the medical school so it can train more health care workers to meet the needs of the state's growing elderly population.

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"There's a looming health care workforce shortage and that shortage is getting closer each day," Dr. Joshua Wynne, the school's interim dean, told the State Board of Higher Education Thursday at its meeting at Lake Region State College here.

The old keep getting older, the young often won't stay and, even if they wanted to go into healthcare, the state's only med school doesn't have enough room for many aspiring to the profession, according to charts Wynne furnished.

To make room, he's proposing an increase in state funding over three biennia, from $41 million this biennium to $68.8 million in 2015-2017.

That's a 68 percent increase.

On top of that, he'll be asking for a $25 million new building south of the school's main building on Columbia Road.

For that kind of money, the school would be able to expand the number of doctors it can train from 943 today to 1,148 in 2015, a 22 percent increase.

It would grow the number of faculty and staff from around 500 now to 667 in 2015, a 33.4 percent increase.

Wynne said the state investment would also have a strong economic impact. Every new dollar in state funding, he said, would bring another $1.72 in research grants and contracts, tuition and other revenue, he estimated.

Currently, the amount of grants and contracts alone is about equal to state funding. This particular line of revenue means outside dollars flowing into the state economy, building the economy instead of the same money circulating internally.

Wynne told the Herald the projection also assumes tuition increases are limited to 3.5 percent a year, as in existing policy.

Scary trends

So how bad is the need?

Wynne and Dave Molmen, the chief executive of Altru Health System and an advisor to the med school, gave the state board some stark projections.

The aging of the Baby Boomers means the number of Americans older than 65 is starting a steep climb around now and will keep climbing at that rate for several decades. The number of Americans 85 and older will start a similarly steep climb around 2030.

Aging trends nationwide tend to hold true here as well, except with the youth population's tendency to leave, it's worse here.

"North Dakota is predicted to be the state with the largest population of people over 85 of any state," Wynne said.

The fact that the elderly tend to need more medical care and that even among those younger the demand for care has risen means the state will face a critical shortage of health care workers. Yet, like North Dakota, the rest of the nation isn't producing more med school grads.

States from Alaska to Georgia have been warning of a shortage of health care workers for several years.

For Molmen, that means the competition for what workers there are will only intensify. In general, he told the board, it's always harder to compete for outside talent, who often don't stay long in North Dakota, than to nurture your own talent, who have the additional advantage of better understanding of rural needs.

There's some urgency Wynne and Molmen said because it takes a decade to turn a high school grad into a doctor.

Wynne estimated that the state will be short 210 doctors by 2025 if nothing is done now. If the funding comes through and everything works out as planned, the state would only be short 43 doctors at that time, he said.

Legit arguments

How state lawmakers will react to the massive budget request -- just the 2011-2013 request would increase the existing funding by 14 percent -- is anyone's guess.

UND officials are expected to present the same presentation to the Legislature's interim higher education committee in the future.

The committee's chairman, Rep. Bob Skarpohl, R-Tioga, was at the state board meeting Thursday and, though he didn't have an immediate response to the budget request, he said he shared Wynne's concern having sat on a UND panel that looked into the shortage of health care workers.

"His statistics are hard to argue with," Skarpohl told the Herald. "They have very legitimate arguments."

But he wondered if federal health care policy, whenever Congress agrees to one, might not discourage young people from entering the medical profession. Luckily, the state legislature won't convene until next year so there's still time to watch how the debate shakes out, he said.

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