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UC Riverside makes rare second attempt to add medical school

UC Riverside’s long-held dream to have a full medical school was badly battered last year when the state refused to pay for it and then national accreditors wouldn’t allow it to open. Those denials were a blow to the UC system’s proud tradition of adding campuses and programs to serve a growing state.

Now, UC Riverside is making what national experts say is a rare second attempt to gain approval for a medical school. Campus officials say they have obtained alternative financial backing, worth about $10 million a year for a decade, from private donors, local government and the UC system in hopes that the medical school can enroll its first 50 students in fall 2013.

“We have so much riding on the school being successful, we just can’t accept that it can’t be done,” said G. Richard Olds, a tropical-disease expert who is the founding dean of the UC Riverside medical school. The goal, he said, is to ease the shortage of doctors in the Inland Empire.

The medical school would be UC’s sixth and its first to open since the late 1960s. The school would be the only one in UC without its own hospital, vastly cutting down on costs. UC’s medical centers and its health education programs constitute about half of the system’s $22-billion annual budget.

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Some skeptics say that UC is in a new era of limits and that even noble causes must be put on hold to preserve the academic quality of its 10 campuses at a time of rising tuition and cutbacks in undergraduate course offerings.

But UC Riverside medical school supporters insist that progress still must be pursued, albeit cautiously.

For three decades, UC Riverside has operated a joint medical school program with UCLA. Its entering classes of about 25 students spend their first two years in Riverside and finish in Westwood.

A full four-year program at UC Riverside would offer clinical training at community medical centers. The emphasis would be on basic fields, including family medicine, pediatrics, gynecology, general surgery and psychiatry, not on more exotic and expensive specialties.

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The expectation is that young doctors educated there would more likely practice in the underserved Inland Empire, officials said. Such is the case for Regina Inchizu, who recently finished her first year of medical studies at Riverside and wants to work in the area in family medicine and women’s health after she graduates from UCLA. “There is a huge need for doctors in Riverside,” she said, adding that she wants to work in such a high-need area.

John Stobo, the UC system’s senior vice president for health sciences and services, expressed strong support. “This is not starting from scratch. This is expanding a program that’s demonstrated success,” he said. “This is not taking money and taking a gamble and seeing if it is going to work.”

The fate of the proposal lies with the national accreditor, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which last year said finances looked too uncertain without solid state backing. Dan Hunt, the agency’s co-secretary, said it will vote in October on UC Riverside’s renewed application to recruit and enroll students. (Full accreditation — which looks at, among other things, the quality of education in classrooms and clinics — would be decided after the school is open several years.)

The situation is unusual, he said, since only two proposals to open new schools were rejected over the last 25 years, and only UC Riverside is trying again. In that time, 14 schools in the U.S. were allowed to open, and five in addition to Riverside are trying to do so, according to the agency.

The second accrediting team recently toured UC Riverside’s labs and classrooms, some still under construction, and reviewed educational, scientific and financial criteria. Among the group’s concerns: whether a school relies too heavily on tuition to support itself. Hunt declined to comment about specifics of UC Riverside’s application or its chances, but in general, he said, if any public medical school is “really counting on state money and if they don’t have it in their pocket, it is going to be an issue.”

Last year, the UC system unsuccessfully sought $10 million in start-up costs from the state but instead had to use other funds. Since then, Olds and UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy P. White began knocking on doors for support.

As a result, the UC president’s office and the UC Riverside campus will provide $4 million a year from its own nonstate funds and about $6 million a year has been pledged by Riverside County, the quasi-governmental Desert Healthcare District, affiliated hospitals and other donors. In addition, the UC system has authorized a $30-million line of credit, a backup officials say they don’t expect to tap.

Those commitments, they contend, should be enough to soon start accepting applications for its first 50 openings, half the ultimate enrollment goal, and they anticipate strong demand. The school has a basic faculty of 26 full-time research and clinical faculty and wants to hire about 17 more. It recently built a research lab building and another structure is under renovation for classrooms and practice clinics, projects that cost about $58 million in other UC, state, federal and other funds. Its first annual budget is expected to be $37 million, including revenue from tuition, research grants and clinics.

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But Olds said the school still will need $15 million a year from the state in the long run if it is to grow and offer more health services to the community. “We not only need the state to give us money, but quite frankly, we deserve the state to give us money. Inland Southern California needs to get its share of state support for medical schools,” he said during a tour of the facilities, including the lab where students dissect cadavers.

In previous decades, Californians celebrated UC’s new campuses and programs. But more recently, the new UC Merced campus and UC Irvine law school faced skepticism and allegations that local boosterism trumped educational needs.

In 2009, a state legislative analyst’s report suggested that UC expand enrollments at its existing medical schools before opening a new one. “The idea that the state is going to find money for a new program isn’t realistic at the moment,” said Paul Golaszewski, the legislative analyst’s UC expert.

Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank in San Jose, said the UC Riverside plan is “just the latest chapter in almost reckless expansionism.” While a medical school would do some good, it is being propelled more by the desire for prestige and economic development, he said. “We are not in 1969, when we could think in these grand terms. We have to think about protecting the quality of what we have rather than creating more financial demands.”

If Riverside’s latest application is denied, officials pledged to try again in two years, the soonest rules allow. Meanwhile, UC Merced, the system’s newest campus, also wants to add a medical school, but Stobo said that is unlikely to happen for 15 years or so.

larry.gordon@latimes.com


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