Assemblyman Arambula proposes medical school for Fresno State

Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, introduced legislation Monday to establish a medical school at Fresno State, which if approved by lawmakers would be the first in the state not at a University of California campus.

Arambula voiced interest in Fresno State as a site for a medical school at a meeting in September to discuss health-care needs. Historically, California has relied on the UC system for medical education, but Arambula said the state has allowed other advanced degrees to be offered at state universities such as California State University, Fresno. He expressed concern over the slow progress being made to establish a medical school at UC Merced.

UC regents gave conceptual approval for a new medical school in Merced eight years ago, but the project has not materialized. UC Riverside, which got approval for a medical school in 2006, did not seat its first class of students until 2013.

Fresno State President Joseph Castro made no mention of Arambula’s proposal for a medical school at Fresno State during his State of the University address on Tuesday morning.

Lawrence Salinas, executive director of governmental relations in Castro’s office, said they knew Arambula was going to introduce the bill, but did not know the extent of the language. He offered no comment on the bill. It is customary with legislation that a CSU campus not take an official position, Salinas said.

“But we certainly have enjoyed our working relationship with Dr. Arambula and his staff so far, and we certainly hope to continue working with them, including helping to address the health disparities in Fresno and the Valley,” Salinas said.

A former emergency room doctor, Arambula said Assembly Bill 207 addresses the shortage of health care professionals in Fresno, Kern, Kings and Stanislaus counties.

Arambula said he has witnessed the challenges faced by underserved communities in the central San Joaquin Valley because of the shortage of primary care doctors.

“I will be fighting to bring a medical school back to an area that has needs,” he said.

The Assembly bill cites a 2009 report by the California Health Care Foundation that the greater Fresno area has 118 doctors overall per 100,000 residents, compared to 174 statewide. The Valley has 45 primary care doctors per 100,000 residents compared to 59 statewide.

Arambula said he would support a medical school at UC Merced, but school officials have said the focus has shifted away from a medical school and toward a goal of increasing student enrollment to 10,000 by 2020.

“Their priorities don’t seem to align with the workforce needs that we have in the Central Valley,” he said.

He said he expects opposition to the bill from “those who currently are granted the ability to grant MDs or give MDs. They may feel a bit threatened by more universities being allowed to do that.”

Dr. Michael Peterson, associate dean at the UCSF-Fresno Medical Education program, and Thomas W. Peterson, provost and executive vice chancellor of UC Merced, could not be reached for comment by deadline. But in an opinion column published in The Bee on Oct. 29, they said a medical school alone cannot solve the Valley’s doctor-shortage problem.

“In order for undergraduate medical education to address physician shortages, it must be coupled with growth in residency positions,” they said. Increasing graduates of a local medical school would displace trainees unless residencies also are expanded, they said.

Arambula said he will advocate for funding to increase residency slots for doctors, but that will not forestall his push for a medical school at Fresno State. Gov. Jerry Brown, in his January budget, did not include a proposed $100 million investment over the next three years for health care workforce funding in California.

As to cost and a timeline for completion of the proposed medical school at Fresno State, Arambula said the priority this year will be gaining approval to locate a school there, and next year would address funding. But as a comparison, the medical school at UC Riverside cost about $100 million, he said.

Arambula’s bill is the second recent effort to bring a medical school to Fresno. The Assemi family, which opened a private pharmacy school in Clovis four years ago, announced plans at the end of last year for a college of osteopathic medicine. They said the college would open with a first class in fall 2019.

California Health Sciences University, which operates the pharmacy school, has been granted approval to begin an accreditation process for a medical college. The osteopathic school would be on a permanent campus on 60 acres near Temperance Avenue and Highway 168, just north of Clovis Community Medical Center.

Florence Dunn, president of the health sciences university, said in a written statement that the doctor shortage in the San Joaquin Valley will only worsen if action isn’t taken now. “We are pleased to learn that there is support for a medical school at Fresno State and we wish them success because it will help our community,” Dunn said.

A medical school at Fresno State would not be competition, she said. “We feel there is room for medical schools with different niches here.”

Osteopathic doctors, known by the degree initials DO, tend to practice in primary care. The health sciences university has a four-year pharmacy school that has an emphasis on training pharmacists to provide primary care to patients.

Dunn has said that opening a private osteopathic school is more financially feasible than starting a doctor of medicine school such as those at UC campuses, including UCSF-Fresno. The UC medical schools include medical research that is expensive to provide.

But opening an osteopathic school of medicine won’t be cheap, and the Assemi family said it is working with an out-of-town investor, whom they have not identified.

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter