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University of Missouri

No Doctors, Mo’ Problems

MU medical school pursues Springfield expansion.

A statewide referendum to increase Missouri’s cigarette tax failed by just 1.6 percentage points in November 2012, but there might be a silver lining for MU administrators who wanted to educate more physicians with the proposed tax money.

When the idea to expand the MU School of Medicine was hatched 2 ½ years ago, Weldon Webb, associate dean for rural health, thought it would take a year to educate state lawmakers — the hoped-for funders of the project — about Missouri’s physician shortage and the need to increase the medical school’s annual enrollment by a third, from 96 to 128, and launch a clinical campus in Springfield, Mo.

Students would spend their first two years in Columbia and their second two years in a clinical rotation in Springfield, where, like 90 percent of the state, there is a shortage of health care professionals.

pile of cigarette butts

©shutterstock.com

Then came Proposition B — the proposed tobacco tax — in mid-2012. It promised to foot the entire expansion bill: $10 million a year in operational costs and $33 million in one-time costs, including $30 million for a new education building in Columbia and $3 million to add education space to the facilities of Springfield health care partners CoxHealth and Mercy Health Systems.

The campaign for the tax focused on its benefits: fewer youth and adult smokers, more teachers hired at public schools, and more doctors trained at MU.

We got six months of publicity for this project that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” Webb says. “Everybody knows about it now.”

That publicity, Webb says, makes it easier to bring lawmakers on board as the school and its Springfield partners return to their original plan of seeking private gifts and state funding.

It will take longer to get money this way than with a dedicated tobacco tax, but Webb is optimistic. “It could happen this year,” he says. “Who knows? If they do a huge capital infrastructure bond, it could fit into that. And Mercy and Cox Health are going to be pushing this as well — it’s not just us.”