Senate approves cash infusion to state's medical schools

Sen. Mike Schulz

OKLAHOMA CITY — State senators unanimously approved a measure Thursday that gives an emergency cash infusion to the state’s two medical schools.

The same measure also contains a commitment that the Legislature will allocate an additional $110 million to keep the programs afloat in the upcoming budget year.

The measure ultimately needs to be approved by Gov. Mary Fallin to take effect.

Without the nearly $140 million infusion, officials said the health of Oklahoma State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine and the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine is at risk. Top lawmakers said the state was in danger of losing its doctor training programs and accreditation.

“Medical education, without a doubt, is extremely important for a lot of different reasons,” said Senate President Pro Tem Mike Schulz, R-Altus, after the vote. “I think it was extremely important that we took a quick, affirmative step to bring certainty that we’re going to continue to fund medical education in Oklahoma.”

For more than 20 years, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services worked with the state’s Health Care Authority to help cover the cost of medical care and physician training at the two schools. The funding helped train new doctors, keep schools in compliance with accreditation requirements and sustain a loan repayment program for physicians who opt to practice in underserved parts of the state.

But for nearly 15 of those years, Oklahoma had apparently been spending federal matching health dollars on the programs without the federal authority to do so, according to a letter sent by the federal agency.

In December, the agency announced it was cutting off federal funding, including the $31.7 million that the Health Care Authority had already allocated to the schools and the Physician Manpower Training Commission, which facilitates the loan repayment program. The Health Care Authority then sent the schools and training program collection letters demanding the return of the $31.7 million.

In a joint statement, Drs. Kayse M. Shrum and Jason R. Sanders praised lawmakers for their swift action.

“This funding supports essential state medical school training programs and helps faculty physicians and residents provide care to Medicaid patients across the state,” the pair said. “These efforts are critical as we work to address Oklahoma’s physician shortage and deliver care to the state’s underserved communities.”

Shrum is president of Oklahoma State’s Center for Health Sciences, and Sanders serves as senior vice president and provost of the University of Oklahoma’s Health Sciences Center. The two said they will continue to work with state and federal leaders to ensure the programs continue to receive support going forward.

State officials said they’re working on getting federal funding restored later this year.

Schulz said he’s still hopeful the federal money will be restored at some point. But if that doesn’t happen, he said the measure ensures state funding will continue for the doctor training programs.

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