Point of View

NC lawmakers need to remedy policies putting ECU's med school at risk

June 18, 2014 

Since the early 1970s, the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University and Vidant Medical Center (formerly Pitt County Memorial Hospital) have sustained a unique relationship that is essential to Eastern North Carolina. That relationship has supported the health care needs of one-third of the state, helped this university grow to more than 26,000 students and fueled a center of prosperity and jobs that boosts the economy in the East.


• The two institutions have a combined economic impact on North Carolina of more than $2.5 billion each year.

• Brody is a critical resource in producing physicians who serve North Carolina. Historically, a higher percentage of its medical graduates enter primary care than any other academic medical center in North Carolina and a higher percentage of its medical graduates practice primary care long-term. Brody trains a higher percentage of doctors who practice in North Carolina – 53 percent – than any other academic center.

•  The relationship between Brody and Vidant is essential for training and licensing thousands of health care professionals – from nurses to physical therapists to emergency room doctors. ECU’s goal is to have 3,500 students studying in health sciences fields, virtually all of whom will get jobs that pay well.

• The Brody School brings in more than $20 million per year in research funding, most of which comes from out of state and provides jobs for our region. Our research has led to significant innovations that have helped correct stuttering, made heart surgery minimally invasive, created numerous patents and help seek cures for some cancers and diabetes – diseases whose incidence in Eastern North Carolina is higher than the national average.

•  Together, Brody and Vidant support the only level one trauma center in northeastern North Carolina – bridging a significant gap in coverage between southeastern Virginia and Raleigh.

The value of these assets is widely acknowledged. Yet they are at risk.

Specifically, the sustainability of the Brody School of Medicine is in question. The General Assembly last year eliminated our authority to collect debts through the Set-off Debt Collection Act and has diminished Upper Payment Limits for providers, which restricts our ability to access essential federal Medicaid funds fully. Those are policy steps that have no effect on revenue and yield no tax savings for citizens.

The proposed House budget restores SODCA, but the Senate budget doesn’t. Both versions include provisions that remove or reduce some of the UPL restrictions enacted last session, but they also would impose a steep provider tax for accessing these federal funds.

We need members of the conference committee to reinstate SODCA, restore full access to federal Medicaid funds and not tax us on accessing those funds. SODCA and UPL affect Brody disproportionately because of our unique situation – a situation we would ask the legislature to recognize.

Brody does not own a hospital; its relationship with Vidant provides a teaching hospital for our students. We have a patient population that, on average, is statistically poorer and sicker than elsewhere in the state. We are almost the only safety net to hundreds of thousands of people in 29 counties in the region. And despite the repeated false claims by those opposed to restoring the essential funding tools, we don’t compete with hospitals in the Triangle, Triad or Charlotte.

State funds pay only 20 percent of the cost of operating the Brody School. The majority – 72 percent – comes from the faculty clinical practice. But the loss of our longstanding method to collect debts and our ability to fully access essential Medicaid funds has seriously compromised our ability to backfill recent state budget cuts through our faculty practice.

Like all health care entities, Brody is responding to shifts in health care and to state budget reductions of 19 percent over the past five years by taking steps that will keep costs down and by reconfiguring how we do business. We are committed both to efficiency and to better service.

Yet those steps alone will not be enough. Restoring our full access to federal Medicaid payments as well as our historic debt collection authority is a wise investment in valuable, unique regional resources that return billions of dollars to our state’s economy.

Steve Ballard is chancellor of East Carolina University.

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