The Board of Governors faces what many in higher education view as a test of political independence.
By ANITA KUMAR
Published March 18, 2004
ORLANDO - The last time the governing board of Florida higher education debated whether to open a new public medical school, the board soon was put out of business.
The medical school discussion resumed Wednesday, this time involving different universities and a new higher education board.
The University of Central Florida in Orlando and Florida International University in Miami want the Board of Governors to give them permission and money to open medical schools on their campuses.
The price tag for each: at least $75-million.
Their supporters argue that Florida needs more home-grown physicians, particularly in rural and inner-city areas. "We have a shortage," UCF president John Hitt said. "And it's only going to grow."
Critics say the schools are just looking for the heightened prestige and grant money that flows from having a medical school. They say the state already has enough physicians, and any additional needs could be met by expanding current medical schools.
Florida has almost 49,000 physicians, and ranks 17th in physicians per 100,000 population.
Four years ago, the now-defunct Board of Regents dealt with the same issue when it rejected Florida State University's request to open a new medical school. But the Legislature overruled its decision and opened the nation's first new public medical school in two decades.
Then it abolished the Regents.
Now the Board of Governors is on the hot seat. Its decision on whether to grant the requests by FIU and UCF is viewed by many in higher education as a test of its political independence.
A board committee spent four hours Wednesday listening to medical experts before deciding to ask the full board today to approve a study on the need and potential costs of new medical schools.
"We need to make a rational decision," said board member Zach Zachariah, a cardiologist from Fort Lauderdale. "No one has convinced me there is a need. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars."
Steve Uhlfelder, a board member who served on the Board of Regents, said he doesn't need a study to make up his mind. "There are greater priorities in education," he said.
Education Commissioner Jim Horne said he and Gov. Jeb Bush do not support new schools. "I haven't heard the medical associations clamoring for more doctors," Horne said.
Like FSU, which argued that it would produce doctors willing to work in the state's underserved rural communities, UCF and FIU are selling their proposed schools by saying they would fill a niche.
FIU officials say South Florida needs a public medical school to educate doctors who speak Spanish or Creole. UCF says it sits in the largest metropolitan area in the nation without a medical school.
FSU provost Larry Abele has acknowledged that his school benefited from politics. But that doesn't diminish the need for more doctors in Florida, since most come from another state or another country, he said in a recent interview.
Only 20 percent of doctors in the state graduated from a Florida medical school. Only 32 percent of them completed a Florida residency program.
"I was just really shocked that Florida imports its physicians," Abele said.
Educators and doctors agree on one thing: Florida needs more residency training programs. It ranks 45th among states in the number of residents per 100,000 people, and will need 2,000 more residency positions in five years to approach the national average.
Florida now has public medical schools at FSU, the University of Florida and the University of South Florida. The University of Miami, a private school, also has a medical college. Nova Southeastern University, another private institution, operates a college of osteopathic medicine in Fort Lauderdale.
Board members were told Wednesday that the current schools could expand from 590 first-year students to 782 in 2007-08 at a price of $70-million for capital improvements and $9-million in annual costs.
"Certainly it's much more feasible to expand than set up new medical schools," USF president Judy Genshaft said in a meeting last month. "Nothing against them having medical schools, we just don't have the money."
"That debate will go on, and we're right in the heart of it," said Dick Beard, chairman of the USF Board of Trustees.