Legislative committee overwhelmingly backs Health Sciences Education Building

March 23, 2010

By hammersmith

Good things come to those who wait–that is, if those who wait also methodically argue their case.

A year and a half ago, the Arizona Legislature authorized the Arizona Board of Regents to issue bonds for construction of the Health Sciences Education Building (HSEB) on the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus. On March 23, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Capital Review (JCCR) met and allowed the project to go forward.

“If I could do a cartwheel, I would do one,” said Stuart Flynn, dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix in partnership with Arizona State University, in the Phoenix Business Journal. “Now we know we’re over a huge hurdle, and it’s just going to be very difficult to slow this momentum down at this point. It’s been a long journey and tomorrow we go to work on keeping the campus moving forward with a new building now in sight.”

The committee’s motion to give the HSEB a favorable review was passed by a 10-1 vote, with two members absent from the meeting.

Health-care and bioscience advocates throughout the state have repeatedly joined university representatives in testifying that the $187 million HSEB is essential if Arizona is to bring its supply of physicians and other health-care professionals into better balance with its population. The 268,000 square-foot building will allow the College of Medicine-Phoenix to increase enrollment from 48 students per class to at least 110. Before the College opened, Phoenix was the largest city in the nation without an allopathic medical school.

Proponents of the HSEB have also contended that it is the very definition of a “shovel-ready” project, one that would employ thousands of construction workers almost immediately. Now that the JCCR has acted, construction is likely to begin in April.

“We have permits waiting down at the city,” said David Harris, senior project manager for Arizona Biomedical Collaborative, a partnership between the three state universities, in the Phoenix Business Journal, a week before the JCCR’s meeting.

“We’re really excited,” said William Crist, UA vice president for health affairs, in the Arizona Republic. “This new building is being designed to train all of the health-care professional to work together as a team.”

In addition to the medical students it will support, the HSEB, which will be built adjacent to existing College of Medicine buildings, will provide space for up to 80 students from UA’s College of Pharmacy, as well as students from ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation and Northern Arizona University’s Allied Health program.

“I have been worrying about whether we can move ahead or not,” Dr. Crist said in the Republic. “It’s been really stressful.”

Soon after the Legislature’s September 2008 vote authorizing the Regents to issue bonds for the HSEB and numerous other university construction projects, the national and Arizona economies, already in recession, went into free-fall. Some members of the JCCR, which grants reviews for projects throughout state government, began questioning whether the state would be acting prudently if it initiated new capital projects.

In recognition of the shifting political and economic environment within the state, the universities agreed to pare back their package of proposed construction projects. A request for another Biomedical Campus building was put on hold, and the HSEB was redesigned as a slightly smaller and less expensive facility. The new plans for the HSEB were approved by the Regents at their December, 2009 meeting.

With that action complete, supporters said, the JCCR should have placed the project on its agenda immediately.

“If the Health Sciences project somehow threatened the sensitive budget-balancing negotiations with which lawmakers currently struggle, reluctance on their part might be understandable,” wrote the editorial board of the Arizona Republic in January. “But it doesn’t. Or shouldn’t. All this project does is put people to work and put Arizona’s universities on track to produce more vitally needed medical personnel.”

However, the funding mechanism for repaying the bonds still worried some lawmakers.

“Eighty percent of the debt service is to be paid with lottery revenues, which have evaporated,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, chair of the JCCR, in the Arizona Capitol Times, in early March. “We do not want to move forward with a medical-school proposal for which there is not lottery money available.”

Advocates, however, asserted that the state could not afford to wait longer on the project, given its economic benefits and the need to alleviate Arizona’s doctor shortage.

“What amazes me is that we hear legislators talk about jobs and job creation. However, there is no action on this item, which would create 5,300 on-site jobs and another 1,800 indirect jobs,” said Brett A. Jones, vice president of operations for the Arizona Contractors Association, in the Capitol Times.

Jones also cited a 2005 economic-impact study, which suggested that if the Biomedical Campus were fully built out, by 2020 it could generate at least $2.1 billion per year in economic output.

Dr. Flynn said that the benefits extended far beyond the economic payoff.

“There’s an immediacy to the project in the jobs it would bring to build the facility,” he said in the Capitol Times. “But in the long term, there are huge benefits for decades, in the training of the next generation of health care providers–important for the state of Arizona, which is sorely lacking in its numbers of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists, when compared with the national average.”

In exchange for placing the HSEB on its agenda, JCCR leadership exacted a promise from the Board of Regents not to pursue additional capital projects for the next 18 months.

For more information:

Construction ready to roll on $187M health sciences building,” Phoenix Business Journal, 03/23/2010

UA med campus in downtown Phoenix may grow,” Arizona Republic, 03/18/2010

$187M health sciences building closing in on reality,” Phoenix Business Journal, 03/17/2010

Despite wide support, construction of a $187M medical school building still on hold,” Arizona Capitol Times, 03/08/2010

Urgently needed medical school would help state,” Arizona Republic, 01/22/2010