Support for UC Merced med school grows

A proposed medical school at the UC Merced has overwhelming support in the San Joaquin Valley, with a growing coalition pushing to get money to build the school in tough economic times, a report released today shows.

"The Valley has embraced this project, this initiative," said Bryn Forhan, a Fresno businesswoman and chairwoman of the Valley Coalition for UC Merced Medical School.

At community meetings held last year in nine counties -- from San Joaquin to Kern -- participants cited doctor shortages and a need to train doctors for the Valley's diverse community.

Residents made recommendations on how a medical school at the University of California at Merced could meet the area's health-care needs, especially for patients from varied ethnic backgrounds.

The coalition planned to make its report public in a news conference this morning at the UCSF Fresno Center for Medical Education and Research. The report, titled "A Vision for the Valley," is partly an effort to educate the public about the proposed medical school, gauge community support -- and raise funds. The California Endowment paid for it.

The Valley has 31% fewer primary-care doctors and 51% fewer specialists per capita than the statewide average, according to the report. And more doctors will be needed to keep up with population growth, the report said.

"Without taking action, the doctor-patient ratio will become unsustainable," the report said.

Early steps already are being taken. Next month, plans will be announced for a pilot project involving six students. It will be a collaboration between UC Merced and UC Davis.

The next step would be to open a branch school at UC Davis by 2012. Medical school supporters want an independent school at the UC Merced by 2015.

A crucial step will be coming up with the money. Building costs could be as much as $75 million, according to estimates.

"This is important enough that we've got to find a way to fund it," Forhan said. And the coalition report should help, she said. "Having gone community to community and county to county and getting such widespread support, I think that in itself is a significant tool for us to move forward."

Since the coalition's start in 2008, it's grown from 142 members to more than 1,000, representing about 150 organizations from government, education, health, business and nonprofit areas, Forhan said.

The medical school has the support of Congressmen Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno. Both helped form the coalition.

Cardoza said President Barack Obama's proposed federal budget includes $100 million for new medical schools. He'd like to see some of that go to the Merced project. "We have to see if we can get that through the process," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Efforts to raise money in the community will be crucial, Costa said. A UC Merced medical school is competing for federal funds with other proposed medical schools, including one planned for UC Riverside, he said.

A medical school in Merced could bring money to the Valley, supporters of the school said. "Each year, over $845 million in health-care dollars leave the region to other areas of the state" and that amount reflects only four north Valley counties, the report said.

The economic climate makes advocacy for the medical school all the more important, said Pete Weber, a member of the coalition from Fresno County and a board member of the Regional Jobs Initiative, a public-private partnership working to increase jobs in the Valley.

There will be pressure to slow the project, "and we can't have that," Weber said.

Related stories from Fresno Bee