Counties' leaders support UC Merced medical school

The University of California at Merced may be more than five years away from opening a medical school, but regional leaders are already giving the university's proposed plans a thumbs-up.

Tuesday, the Merced County Board of Supervisors unanimously sup- ported a resolution for the univer- sity's proposed plans to establish the medical school, although the plans remain on the drawing board.

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 Tuesday night to support the medical school.

"The resolution is important to the area because of the shortage of doctors," said Supervisor Jim DeMartini. "But there is a $9 billion bond being proposed for higher education funding for the November ballot, and it includes not one dollar for medical facilities at UC Merced. If it is not included now, I don't know when there will be another opportunity."

At DeMartini's request, the board added language to the resolution calling for full state funding for establishing a UC medical school in the San Joaquin Valley.

"I think it's a good thing," said board Chairman Tom Mayfield after the vote. "It's a way to add something to the valley that we haven't had. Maybe if they graduate here, they will stay."

Other counties support plan

The Merced and Stanislaus boards aren't the only ones to have approved the proposed plans for the medical school. County supervisors in Kings and Mariposa counties passed similar resolutions last week.

University officials have held ongoing discussions with regional leaders about their plans for the school. In recent months, the university has sent letters to several county boards in the Central Valley, soliciting support for the pro- posal.

Merced Supervisor Kathleen Crookham said the board would offer what- ever help it could to make the medical school a real- ity.

"We're eager to see this move forward," she said.

Merced Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said she supported the university's plans to partner with regional health care entities in proposing the medical school.

"We already have a lot of hospitals, and we certainly have the infrastructure to support a learning environment at those hospitals," she said. "With the appropriate staff and facilities at UC Merced, there's no doubt that a school such as this could succeed."

A goal of the chancellor

Establishing a medical school is one of the primary short-term goals of UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang and university officials, who hope to have the school operational by 2013. They cite the region's physician shortage and lack of adequate health care resources as reasons the medical school is necessary.

The San Joaquin Valley has 24 percent fewer primary care physicians and about 50 percent fewer specialists than the rest of the state, according to a UC Merced report.

University officials recently completed a preliminary business plan for the school with input from medical professionals from UC Davis, UC San Francisco and UC San Francisco's Fresno Medical Education Program, said Brandy Nikaido, medical education planning spokeswoman.

Nikaido added that the UC Board of Regents could vote on a final draft of the proposed medical school plans this year. If the plans are approved by the regents, the state Legislature would decide whether to fund the medical school.

With the state facing a pro- jected $14.5 billion budget deficit, however, receiving the needed funds for the school may prove to be a challenge. Nikaido said university officials are unsure how -- or whether -- the state's budget woes will affect the university's plans for the school, although they "remain hopeful and are moving forward."

She said the business plan includes ways the university can raise private donations to help fund the medical school.

"Clearly, the current fiscal climate poses a serious challenge. On the other hand, UC Merced has established an aggressive development plan that is being considered as part of the preliminary document," Nikaido said. "With that said, it has to be underscored that new state money must be invested to recruit that faculty and administrators."

Bee staff writer Tim Moran contributed to this report.