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2009-09-03 digital edition

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2009-09-03 / General Stories

Start of a New Era for UTMB

by Stephen E. Ogden (R-Bryan) Chairman, Senate Finance Committee

Nearly a year ago, Hurricane Ike devastated southeast Texas and no institution was more greatly affected than the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB). As Washington continues the debate over healthcare reform, it is relevant to review what happened to UTMB, how Texas officials responded, and what progress has been made in its recovery.

UTMB is a world-renowned teaching, research and healthcare institution. Its Galveston complex covers 85 acres with seven hospitals and a Level I trauma center. Prior to the hurricane, UTMB enrolled more than 2300 students, admitted 41,000 patients, and had 750,000 outpatient visits per year. It is the healthcare provider for 3/4ths of the inmates in the Texas prison system. And for many other Texans, UTMB has been the world-class, life-saving provider of last resort. In 2007, it provided $166 million in unsponsored charity care.

When Hurricane Ike hit Galveston on September 13, 2008, we almost lost this treasure. As the storm surge topped the 17' seawall and backwashed over the bowl-shaped island, one million square feet of UTMB facilities were flooded with anywhere from six inches to six feet of water. The hospitals were evacuated, students transferred to other institutions, and the Level I trauma center shut down. Electrical systems were shorted out, water systems contaminated, furniture and equipment simply ruined. Mold and mildew hindered and increased the cost of clean-up. UTMB, already losing money, had sustained as much as $710 million in damage.

In November 2008, the University of Texas Board of Regents announced the lay-off of 25 percent of the UTMB workforce and revealed a plan for rebuilding a much smaller UTMB - one that might not include the important Level I regional trauma center, support the existing breadth of research activities, or carry the patient load necessary for a topquality training facility. This caused an uproar in Galveston and across the state, prompting the Governor and legislative leadership to intervene.

We believed the state needed to commit to assisting Galveston in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. It's important to note that UTMB is by far the largest employer and major economic engine in the region and therefore key to its recovery. We also valued UTMB for what it was and what it meant to Texas. We saw this as an opportunity to retrofit, upgrade, and improve UTMB. We worked with the UT Regents and others to reinforce these ideals. And in the state budget process, we put money behind them.

Current funding commitments for rebuilding UTMB include $450 million from FEMA, $300 million from the Texas legislature, $200 million from the Sealy & Smith Foundation of Galveston, $170 million from UTMB bonds and other philanthropy, $67 million from private insurance proceeds, and $50 million from Community Services Block Grant funds. Additionally, in the two-year budget beginning September 1, 2009, the legislature authorized approximately $1.1 billion for operations at UTMB. That appropriation includes almost $100 million of new clinical operating funds.

Nearly a year after Hurricane Ike, things are looking up in Galveston. UTMB's hospitals have been re-opening in stages and laid-off staff are gradually being called back. The trauma center re-opened on July 29 and it is expected to treat nearly 50,000 patients the first year. Galveston County officials have promised to substantially increase local support for indigent healthcare.

There is still a long way to go, but as everyone does their part, UTMB can be better than it ever was. I will closely watch the expenditure of funds and review progress reports to ensure that UTMB's recovery stays on track. I believe this renewed commitment to our Texas medical school will be the start of another greatly distinguished era in its storied history.

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