Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

EDITORIAL >>No to a second medical school

Arkansas has one too many law schools and soon will have one too many medical schools — one more in each case than this poor state can afford.

It was Jacksonville’s own state Senator Max Howell, a powerhouse in the legislature at the time, who engineered the creation of a second state-supported law school 30 years ago, this one at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. No one had complained that Arkansas was cheated by a paucity of lawyers when the only public law school was at Fayetteville, but we know that we have an abundance of them now. The Fayetteville law school shrank over time to second place. Senator Howell did it because he could, although the state’s anemic treasury could ill afford duplicate law schools.

A duplicate medical school will cost far more because the facilities, equipment and faculty salaries are far more expensive than what is needed to train lawyers. But Northwest Arkansas will extract payback for Howell’s deed next year. Lawmakers from the region say they are united, Republicans and Democrats, in making a Fayetteville medical school a priority when the legislature convenes in January. Gov. Beebe told them he would go along if the area could raise the money privately for the first capital costs. So the rich people of the community put up $3 million, which will retrofit the old Washington Regional Medical Center for a medical school. The taxpayers will put up $3.5 million next year to operate the school, which will open next fall with six or so students.

That is not so much, but it is only the beginning. When it is up to the planned 100 students, the operating and capital costs borne by the taxpayers every year will be many multiples of $3.5 million. The diminishing quality of medical school entrants at the state’s expanded medical school is already an issue.

But northwest Arkansas, the supporters say, will need not only more doctors as it grows but more health professionals generally, and especially more nurses. Five colleges in the area, including the University of Arkansas a few blocks away, already offer degrees in nursing and are not full. Will a sixth school produce more?

Legislators who can serve no more than six years will not care what the expense will be in eight years. If the sales tax on groceries can be cut again as Beebe proposes, they will think we can certainly afford $3.5 million for a medical school next year. Never mind if it is $75 million in eight years. That is how government grows.