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Published November 28, 2012, 08:16 AM

UND seeks new building to train more doctors

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences plans to ask the Legislature for $124 million for a new building, which officials said would help address the state’s shortage of health care workers.

By: Jennifer Johnson, Forum Communications

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences plans to ask the Legislature for $124 million for a new building, which officials said would help address the state’s shortage of health care workers.

A new building would enable the school to cope with more students, eliminate long-term maintenance costs associated with the existing 60-year-old building and potentially bring in more federal funds, the school’s Dean Joshua Wynne told the Herald editorial board Tuesday.

As a doctor and an educator, he said, he believes the need for the med school building is just as essential as transportation and other public services.

“This is not simply an educational proposal, or a higher education proposal,” he said. “This is infrastructure for the state of North Dakota, especially in the western counties of the state.

“Having a nice road, and not being able to transport someone to an appropriate health care facility, I don’t think that’s enough. We have to have both.”

The medical school has been down this road before. During the 2011 legislative session, it had sought $28.9 million for an addition to the existing building, but was rebuffed by the governor, who thought lawmakers would balk at the cost. UND ended up getting $1.8 million to train more doctors and other health care workers.

Costly option

The new building is the costliest of the school’s three options to accommodate the resulting 24 percent enrollment growth. The existing building is a former hospital built in 1952, and it’s under strain from the growth, according to Wynne.

One alternative option is an 80,103-square-foot addition with an estimated price tag of $38.5 million.

Another alternative has twice as much space as the first with an estimated price tag $68.3 million.

A new 376,812-square-foot building would cost $124 million but, Wynne said, would be less expensive to maintain than an old building with an addition. Also, a new building could bring in an estimated $37 million in federal funds over 40 years, he said.

With the new building, the university would be eligible for a bump in each federal research grant it gets to pay for building maintenance. The alternative options would not be eligible for this bump, according to Wynne.

The new building would be constructed on the Bronson Property just north of the present school and be completed in 2016, if all state funding is approved.

Temporary housing and other options would have to be explored, as class size expansion would hit hardest around 2015-2016.

“We would have a major problem for a year or two,” Wynne said.

State Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, who chairs the Interim Health Services Committee, said her committee has seen all three options and backs the new building.

“We have a pressing and crucial need throughout the entire state for all of those medical professionals, and you can’t educate them if you don’t have a place for them,” she said.

Enrollment up

Besides the new building, the medical school plans to ask lawmakers for $11.4 million for more faculty and support to cope with the rising number of students.

Enrollment is growing because, last year, the Legislature agreed to have the school enroll 46 more students and add 17 more residencies each year under an initiative called Grow Our Own Doctors.

Current enrollment totals 775, including some of the additional students.

The idea of Grow Our Own Doctors is to recruit health care workers from within North Dakota, which is easier than attracting new workers from other places, Wynne said.

Although the need for rural physicians has always been strong, fast growth in the western part of the state exacerbates that need. At the same time, a third of the doctors in the state is 60 or older and nearing retirement.

“If we don’t start with younger people, we could have a perfect storm,” Wynne said. “Our current problem could be exacerbated dramatically.”

However, he stressed the school is not planning to build a space and hoping to fill it. The calculations are based on the present real needs of the school, plus the growth from the class size expansion, he said.

“We really need to get our arms around health care costs,” he said. “From an industry standpoint, that’s a real issue and we really need to do something about it.”

Call Johnson at (701) 787-6736; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1736; or send e-mail to