Waiting is not an option. It’s time for a medical school in the Valley

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Three years ago, I secured $1 million in funding from the state budget for the University of California to study a medical school at its Merced campus. My goal was to highlight the dramatic disparities in access to care for residents of Merced County and reinvigorate the conversations around developing a medical school.

The UC’s report, “Improving Health Care Access in the San Joaquin Valley,” is now completed and details numerous health challenges faced by residents of the San Joaquin Valley along with a number of recommendations to improve access to care. A companion report, “Current and Future Health Professions Workforce Needs in the San Joaquin Valley,” includes statistics on healthcare workforce shortages.

The numbers are staggering.

The Valley is one of the fastest growing, poorest and least-healthy regions of the state. We have the lowest ratio of licensed MDs, DOs, NPs, RNs, marriage and family therapists, counselors, and social workers in the state. The Valley has just 157 MDs per 100,000 people; the Bay Area has 411.

In a time when people across the state are discussing the need for universal healthcare coverage, we cannot overlook the fact that in parts of the state having a health insurance card does not mean that you get to see a doctor. Too many people in Merced County still go to emergency rooms for needs that could be managed by primary care physicians, if only they could find one who is accepting new patients.

We have long known about the severity of the physician shortage in the San Joaquin Valley and of the difficulty health care institutions face in attracting doctors to practice medicine here. It is time that we take that information and find innovative solutions.

The University of California knows how to be innovative when it comes to building medical schools. Last year, I visited the new medical school at UC Riverside with my colleague, Assemblymember Jose Medina, and a delegation of leaders from UC Merced. The new medical school is based on a distributive model, unlike the UC medical schools that are centered around brick-and-mortar hospitals.

It was developed through a collaboration with the existing UCLA medical school.

UC Riverside’s medical school is impressive and is predicated on the goal of increasing the number of physicians practicing medicine in the Inland Empire. Several slots every year are held for students showing a clear interest in practicing medicine in the area. While the health access statistics in that part of the state are not as dire as those in Merced, there was a clear need – one that UC Riverside’s medical school will go a long way in fulfilling.

The UC’s report highlights the importance of leveraging existing infrastructure at the UCSF Fresno Medical Center to provide new access to care options like telehealth and residency expansion, while recommending the establishment of a branch campus as the most proven track to a fully independent medical school. That would mimic what occurred in Riverside.

My bill AB 2202 will appropriate funding to the UC Regents for the construction of a branch campus of the UCSF School of Medicine in partnership with UC Merced and the UCSF Fresno Medical Education Program.

The UC’s report also recommends increasing the number of residency slots in our region, creating robust medical school pipeline programs for Valley students, and investing in telehealth programs to help us ensure that more people have access to a doctor when they need it. We should pursue all of those programs.

The numbers are clear. We have a healthcare-access crisis in our region and Merced County is at the center. We cannot wait to implement policies and programs that will bring more doctors to our region.

I am convening a health care access summit along in partnership with UC President Janet Napolitano and Chancellor Dorothy Leland at UC Merced on June 22 to reinvigorate our efforts to address these healthcare-access shortages. My colleagues and I who represent the San Joaquin Valley will not relent until we see equity in health care access for our constituents.

Adam Gray represents the 21st Assembly District, including Merced and part of Stanislaus County. Email https://a21.asmdc.org/