Newsom visits UC Merced, pledges medical school support

Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the campus of UC Merced on Monday, throwing his support behind an effort to build a $210 million medical education building on the campus.

According to UC Merced, its proposed Health, Behavioral Sciences and Medical Education Building will house the Departments of Psychological Sciences and Public Health, a medical education program, and Health Sciences Research Institute.

The announcement Monday by Newsom is the most significant backing by a governor to support UC Merced’s quest for a medical school — a goal that’s been on the wish list for Valley leaders since the early years of the university, which opened in 2005.

Newsom highlighted the importance of educating medical students in Merced County and the Valley. “They will come here in the Valley and they will stay in the Valley. They will contribute and they will serve the residents and the people that made their education possible,” Newsom said.

“That’s exactly what we are promoting here today. That’s the promise and it’s a promise we can deliver.”

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, explained the UC Merced program will work as a “distributive model” in partnership with UCSF in Fresno.

Gray said the building will not be a medical hospital which would be a matter of “billions of dollars over many, many years.”

Gray explained UCSF’s regional hospital and clinical program in Fresno will work in partnership with UC Merced’s new medical program.

“By taking the two existing resources, putting them together, getting operational budget, which the governor did for us, and now the money for this building to do that academic learning right on this campus, partnered with what goes on in Fresno, you’ve created a medical school at low cost that’s going to put these students on the ground serving patients in the most expeditious way,” Gray said.

University officials said launching the medical school, either with an established school like UCSF or independently, initially wasn’t possible because the money just wasn’t there.

“This was driven in large part by the critical lack of health care professionals in the Central Valley, a problem that has only gotten worse in the last 28 months” said UC Merced Chancellor Juan Sanchez Munoz.

“We know from the medical literature that medical professionals are more likely to establish practices in the places where they were educated and underwent their residency.”

Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, also noted how the health needs in the Valley were illustrated by the impacts of COVID-19.

“This was crushing and devastating to us, but the investment the state of California is making to this community is really important,” she said.

The first 12 students are expected to be admitted to UC Merced’s bachelor of science program in the fall of 2023. They will complete their bachelor’s degree and pre-medical clinical training at UC Merced before advancing to graduate medical study at UCSF-Fresno.

“We only have one hospital here,” said Adan Gallardo, a local student who studies human biology at UC Merced. “We have a lot of people in the agricultural system here who are exposed to a lot of pathogens and chronic illnesses. They need special physicians who can take care of them and we don’t have that here. That’s a change I want to make.”

How the costs will be handled

The new building and its programs are expected to serve around 2,200 undergraduate students by 2030.

Usually, expensive new buildings like the proposed medical education program at UC Merced are paid for through a bond.

By state law, there is a cap on how much money can be bonded for building at University of California campuses. Two years ago, Gray passed budget language that took $200 million in funding out from under the UC bond cap.

“So the bonds will be covered under the general fund, not the UC cap,” explained Mike Dunbar, spokesman to Assemblymember Gray.

About $210.4 million is allocated for construction of the health, behavioral sciences and medical education building at UC Merced, which will be covered by the state’s general fund. Another $15 million will pay for operations, professors, staff and other costs associated with the medical education programs every year. That money is awarded through the Legislature, Dunbar said.

Around $4.2 million in campus funds have been dedicated for design and environmental evaluation of the project, according to the university.

Last month U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, Costa and Gray held a roundtable discussion at the campus, saying they were optimistic about the prospects of building a campus medical program, coupled with a partnership with UCSF Fresno to train doctors who would remain in the Central Valley.

The San Joaquin Valley has struggled for decades to attract more doctors to the region, and the physician-to-patient ratio is well below what medical experts say is needed.

For example, a 2017 report by the Healthforce Center at UCSF found the San Joaquin Valley region has the lowest ratios of licensed doctors and registered nurses per 100,000 population in California and the second lowest ratios of physician assistants and clinical nurses per capita.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, doctor shortages in Valley towns became an even more significant problem.

This story was originally published October 25, 2021 11:45 AM.