State Budget Will Include Local Medical Community

By Bill Dries

The two biggest capital spending items in Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s state budget proposal are a $62 million renovation of the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis and a new $60 million Community Health Building at the University of Memphis.

The Community Health Building on the University of Memphis Park Avenue Campus is one of the local medical projects included in the new state budget.

(Photo Courtesy of The University of Memphis)

Both items represent more than new buildings for the Memphis medical community. They also come with moves toward medical research and economic development in the medical field that have been overshadowed by the dollar figures.

The state of Tennessee would put up $45 million of the $60 million cost of the new four-story 177,000-square-foot building on the University of Memphis’s Park Avenue campus.

It would be the new anchor building on the land that was once the old Kennedy Hospital for military veterans and returning soldiers. The university would raise the remaining $15 million.

The Loewenberg School of Nursing would move from its current location on the main campus to the building. Its 1,100 students and 68 faculty and staff would be the largest group using the facility.

But university president Shirley Raines pushed for a new home in the building for the school of communication sciences and disorders as well as the Memphis Speech and Hearing Center. The center, which the university has been a part of since 1967, is now in the Memphis Medical Center.

Raines said the new home for the school and center is “much needed.”

“We have people on waiting lists trying to get into those programs,” she said.

Haslam, in a visit last week to the University of Memphis, said Raines lobbied for the new center, telling him the training will help attract and fill jobs in an industry that is growing.

He commended Raines for “understanding the needs of the market and being able to meet that.”

The $62 million renovation at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center is “overdue,” Haslam said of the conversion of the space to up-to-date research labs and administrative buildings.

Just as Raines lobbied Haslam, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital CEO Dr. Bill Evans also sought Haslam’s support for a smaller amount of state funding – $15 million at a rate of $3 million annually for five years.

The money comes from tobacco arbitration settlement money that is Tennessee’s share from tobacco litigation split among numerous states.

The state funding will be combined with similar financial commitments from St. Jude and Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center as a recruitment fund for researchers at UT’s pediatric medicine department, specifically the Center for Excellence in Pediatric Obesity.

Dr. John McCullers began his tenure March 1 as chairman of the department and pediatrician in chief at Le Bonheur.

“The more we can help them elevate that department as a top 20 academic department of pediatrics, the better it is for the entire community including St. Jude,” Evans said, referencing a point he made to the St. Jude board of directors last summer. The board approved it and directed Evans to seek a state commitment as well.

“Those people will come to our campus and provide some consultative service and to some extent engage in our research,” Evans said. “The stronger they are, the more impact they can have on us. The whole concept here was that we want all of the boats of pediatric medicine to rise with this rising tide.”

Pediatric sub specialists at Le Bonheur already participate in care and some research on the St. Jude campus. And St. Jude has long sought stronger research ties with the University of Tennessee.

“St. Jude is incredibly strong in pediatric cancer and sickle cell,” Evans said. “But when it comes to pediatric cardiology and these other specialties, that’s where we need to rely on our colleagues at UT. That’s really what this is investing in.”

Haslam talked in general about a goal of battling childhood obesity in the state as he highlighted the research recruitment funding.

“When we talk about Medicaid costs consuming so much of our budget, improving the health of our citizens isn’t only about their welfare,” Haslam said in his state of the state address Monday, Jan. 28, in Nashville. “It’s also about dollars and cents.”

Evans said the medical problem is an example of how research can be shared among the three institutions.

“The link to St. Jude is that a part of obesity is genetics. A part is environmental – what you eat and how much exercise you get. But some of it is genetic predisposition. We have a lot of genetics expertise on our campus,” he said. “Those people at Le Bonheur can interact with our people, collaborate, leverage. This is the motivator here.”