UTRGV medical school facing dangerous funding cuts

EDINBURG — The Texas Senate is scheduled to vote on a state budget this week and local officials are scrambling to overcome what they fear could be a detrimental shortfall in funding for the year-old University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.

The full Texas Senate is scheduled to vote on a two-year spending plan Tuesday that has UTRGV’s medical school facing a $47 million shortfall in that chamber, officials said last week.

The spending plan in the Texas House, while more generous, would leave a budget shortfall of about $15 million for the medical school.

UTRGV officials warn that such an anemic level of funding for such a young institution could imperil staffing, academic programs and even the school’s accreditation.

“We knew going into the session that there was a revenue shortage,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said. “Right now, they are halfway through and there are two bills out there. There’s the House version that takes a 4 percent across-the-board reduction… The Senate version gives us about a 10 percent reduction in our state appropriations.”

Part of the budgeting challenge for the local medical school is a move by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to get rid of a special class of appropriations called “special items.”

Historically, such special item appropriations were temporary funding bumps to help new institutions such as UTRGV address start-up costs.

But Patrick, who was in McAllen last week, told The Monitor that some universities have been abusing those types of appropriations.

“I discovered that some universities in Texas, for example, that they pay up to 40 percent of their faculty through special items (funding) and they’ve been doing that for 30 years,” Patrick said.

He said that he is trying to shift to formula funding for the schools to avoid such abuses.

But in the case of UTRGV, Bailey said the School of Medicine is a perfect example of a genuine need for special item funding considering it is a startup that doesn’t have the number of students necessary to fully fund it.

“The medical school is funded per student and the residencies are funded per resident,” Bailey said. “So once you get your full complement of students and residents, you don’t need a special item. The reason we need it right now is because we are not there… We just have 55 out of 220, so we can’t be adequately funded.”

While the House continues to work on its budget, the Senate is moving forward with a budget that has a two-year funding allocation of just under $25 million. UTRGV officials began the budget process asking for $70 million in funding.

What is at risk are not only important residency and clinical programs, but the accreditation of the school in general, UTGV officials said.

The accrediting entity, in this case the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), could see unstable funding or a funding shortage as an issue.

“It’s very critical for us to be able to get adequate funding to be able to support the medical school, residency programs, medical education, clinical practice and all of those things that are a part of it,” said Veronica Gonzales, UTRGV vice president for governmental and community relations.

“For us to really be able to operate in a way that it’s required to do, and continue at the momentum we’ve built, we need about $60 million.”

Bailey and Gonzalez have been traveling to Austin weekly to meet with state leaders and she has been requesting the support of state legislators who might be able to relate the importance of fully funding the school. But their job has also been adversely affected by what other legislators might perceive as lack of local support toward the university.

“That hurts quite a bit,” Bailey said. “That’s money that would help make up for a budget cut. But the other thing is when we make an argument that we really need this funding for the Medical School, what legislators that are not sympathetic will say ‘The Valley doesn’t really support it. The cities aren’t giving the money that they promised you. The health care district was voted down. Why would legislators support what the Valley itself doesn’t support?’”

The city of McAllen has been under fire for its inability to keep up with their original good faith promise to support the school with $2 million per year. Like other surrounding cities, McAllen signed a memorandum of understanding promising to pay up to $2 million per year from 2014 to 2023.

Other Hidalgo County cities pledged exact amounts including Edinburg with $1 million, Mission $250,000 and Pharr pledging $500,000. Mission backed out almost immediately after hearing the university would also benefit from the proposed, and later failed, health care district, but Pharr and Edinburg have kept their agreement, Bailey said.

dperez-hernandez@themonitor.com