UND medical school wins in N.D. SenateState senators voted Wednesday to pay for a new building for University of North Dakota’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, bumping funding up to a total of $123.7 million.
By: By Jennifer Johnson and TJ Jerke, Forum News Service , The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — State senators voted Wednesday to pay for a new building for University of North Dakota’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, bumping funding up to a total of $123.7 million.
Dr. Joshua Wynne, the school’s dean, said he saw the 34-14 vote as a “strong endorsement” of the plan to expand the school and help provide more health care workers for the state.
He was traveling on business Wednesday, but followed the Senate vote online as it was going on.
Altru Health System CEO Dave Molmen, who chairs the med school’s advisory council, said the Senate took “a bold stance,” and the extra funding will significantly help the state’s rapidly increasing health care needs.
Senators voted Tuesday to give the med school the $68.3 million as part of Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s proposed higher education budget. That was just enough for an addition to the existing school building.
The Wednesday vote added $55.7 million, enough for a completely new building.
The expansion of the med school is driven by concerns that the state’s growing population of seniors and oil workers in rural areas will exacerbate the shortage of health care workers.
But funding for the new bill may not pass as easily in the House.
Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, who has expressed skepticism over the cost of the new building, raised the issue again Wednesday.
The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Education and Environment Division said members are leaning toward taking a different stance on buildings compared with the past. They don’t appreciate the methodology of putting a price on a building and paying that exact amount, he said.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to be more creative and actually get the best facility we can for the cheapest dollars we can, as opposed to saying this building is going to cost X amount,” he said.
Funding for a new building comes after the Legislature authorized a space study to determine the suitability of existing space at the 60-year-old med school building and the amount of new space that may be needed to help meet the state’s needs. The study produced three building options.
An 80,000-square-foot addition would cost $38.5 million. An addition with twice as much space would cost $68.3 million; that’s the governor’s preferred plan.
What the state would get for $124 million is a new 377,000-square-foot building, which UND officials said would cost less to operate than the existing building.
Randy Eken, the med school’s associate dean for administration and finance, said university leaders are grateful the Senate passed the bill. They’ve consistently said the new facility is a better long-term investment, saving UND an estimated $57 million over the building’s 40-year life cycle, he said.
“We think that it provides a better training facility for the school, for the students and more importantly provides a better research space for our faculty,” he said. “It provides a better income stream to the state by us having a better facility.”
“Economically, it performs much better than other options that were available, and over the coming years, it will give us a newer infrastructure and have a longer life in the state of North Dakota,” Molmen said.
Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, agreed.
“We should do it because we can,” he said. “If we have the opportunity to do one-time spending projects that provides greater efficiencies and payback in the future, we should consider it.”
He said building the facility in a new location would not disrupt ongoing med school operations, and would save the state $6 million by taking eight buildings off line in the next five to 10 years.
UND had earlier suggested demolishing the eight and converting other buildings into student housing as a way to offset the cost of the new building.
Try, try again
This is not the first time the med school has sought an expansion.
During the 2011 legislative session, school leaders, including Wynne and Molmen, sought but failed to get $28.9 million for an addition to the existing building, instead receiving $1.8 million to train more doctors and other health care workers using the space they have.
Consideration for a new facility began with the development of the Health Care Workforce Initiative, a program to increase that work force. The Legislature approved it in 2011.
Molmen said the governor is also committed to the initiative and the Senate’s decision makes for a good fit.
Asked what he thought would happen in the House, Wynne avoided speculation. He said only that he looks forward to the discussion, and knows the med school will again have to explain why it believes a new building would help increase the health care work force.