Augusta delegation questions MCG expansion

The possibility of massive cuts at Medical College of Georgia is giving some Augusta legislators reason to question the expansion of its School of Medicine to a branch campus in Athens.

The potential $1 billion state shortfall that prompted plans for drastic cuts also has them thinking of ways to increase revenues.

The Augusta legislative delegation "is seeking an answer as to why MCG is targeted for a $25.6 million cut at its main campus in Augusta while (there) is evidently no plan to delay the proposed expansion of MCG to its Athens campus," said delegation chairman Rep. Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta.

"We want to do everything we can to secure our base here in Augusta," said Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Gracewood, "to include making sure that moving forward we begin prioritizing and minimizing, especially the medical school expansion in Athens that could in fact hurt us here at our main campus in Augusta."

A postgraduate residency program in the Athens area is slated to be chopped if those cuts come through, but the branch campus, in conjunction with the University of Georgia, is still slated to begin its first class in the fall. Existing programs at MCG slated for the ax under the proposed plan should take priority, Murphy said.

"You're talking about eliminating programs that have been established, and we haven't had the first class in Athens yet," he said.

The Athens project is part of an overall $15.9 million effort to expand medical education statewide, but it takes up the lion's share at $10.6 million, according to the school.

Those putting together the plan for additional cuts considered slowing down or eliminating parts of the Athens expansion but ultimately decided to keep it, said MCG Provost Barry D. Goldstein.

"It's critical to the core (mission) here at MCG in Augusta because we need to be able to provide additional clinical sites all across the state to teach and educate our students," he said.

"We looked at that and we just felt that was a program we need to maintain at this point in time."

A cheaper solution might be to "maximize what we have here in Augusta-Richmond County," Murphy said. "We're going to have to slow the process down if we don't have the revenue to support it."

Revenue, and ways to increase it, was also on the mind of Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta. A $1-a-pack cigarette tax is being kicked around by some advocates and others are supporting a liquor tax. Some want to give counties the power to collect their own sales tax revenue, which would bring greater scrutiny on businesses not paying it currently, Howard said.

"It's going to take a combination of both new ideas for new revenue, new resources, as well as some possible cuts but nothing drastic like what has been proposed," he said.

Even though it is an election year, the Legislature will have to face up to some of these possibilities, Murphy said.

"We must think beyond an election to do the right thing for the citizens of our state," he said.

"We have to ensure that all of the needs of our citizens are taken care of. That takes precedence over any election."

The reassurance that the cuts will probably not be as draconian as first thought was comforting to Dr. Charlotte Price, the head of the nursing program at Augusta State University, which was targeted in the cuts.

"The real comfort is they understand how significant this would be if it really occurred for this community, and for the state," she said.

While her students aren't "wined and dined" by hospitals as they were before, they are still getting jobs despite the economy, Price said.

"I talk to the hospitals, and they still are very short-staffed," she said. "The need is still there."

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