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State can't afford new program to train health-care professionals, say GOP lawmakers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 8, 2009 - Only weeks after Gov. Jay Nixon visited a nursing home in Kansas City to kick off a new program to train health-care professionals, two key GOP lawmakers warned Monday that it might be unwise to launch the new initiative because of the state's budget picture.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, told reporters in a conference call that while lawmakers had set aside $40 million for the Caring for Missourians program, the money isn't likely to be available to sustain it in future years. Icet said the $40 million was a one-time allocation, and Kinder said he believed Nixon was "forcing" schools to set up the program but stressed that he had no proof that was happening.

Nixon's spokesperson, Scott Holste, denied the governor had put pressure on the schools to participate. Holste said, "Gov. Nixon has been meeting and working with public colleges and universities since January to craft this measure. What the governor and the universities recognize is that we have to address the critical shortage of health-care providers, and we have to create jobs. The Caring for Missouri initiative goes after both goals. The schools have all committed to using the money in FY 2010 budget for this initiative. We'll continue to work with them on this program."

On May 28, the governor lauded the program while visiting a nursing home in Kansas City. He said the program would help two- and four-year colleges and universities to expand health-care training. He projected that the program would produce 900 additional health-care professionals, in fields ranging from physical therapy to pharmacy.

Following the first graduation class, the program is expected to generate a $53 million payroll. Icet acknowledged the projected economic impact, but he noted that this payoff wouldn't come for up to four years and that Missouri lacked the financial resources to sustain the program past the first year.

At the launch of the program, Nixon had said that even during "these difficult economic times, Missouri still faces a critical need for trained and educated professionals in a variety of health-care fields."

While saying they were sympathetic to the governor's goals, Kinder and Icet said Missouri needed to balance a new program against its fiscal health.

Both stressed that they were not telling colleges and universities not to start the program or suggesting that Nixon veto spending for it. Instead, the two said their message was for all parties to have an honest discussion about whether Missouri could afford the program.

This may become moot because the legislation doesn't require colleges and universities to spend the money on training for health-care professionals. Kinder and Icet suggested that schools might decide to use the funds for other purposes, or they could decide to cut back on other programs to fund Caring for Missourians.

Nearly all colleges and universities in Missouri were scheduled to receive funding. The amounts includes about $24 million for the University of Missouri System, including $2.4 million for the University of Missouri at St. Louis for nurse and optometry training.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.