Budget fuels new fight on MCG growth

ATLANTA --- The debate over expanding the Medical College of Georgia with a satellite campus in Athens is about to start all over again after seemingly being settled three years ago.

Augusta lawmakers are lobbying colleagues in the House and Senate to postpone work on the Athens campus and divert those funds to the main campus, which is suffering from the same budget cuts as every state agency.

"I don't think it makes any sense to weaken the flagship institute in Augusta at the same time they are moving at breakneck speed to hire faculty and prepare facilities that will teach students who have not yet been enrolled," said Sen. Ed Tarver, D-Augusta. "We have students now who are arguably in a better position to help us meet our future need for physicians, and they seem to be ignored."

One veteran Athens legislator suspects the real motive is the battle between the two cities over where the intellectual base of medical research should be.

"Coming from people who were already against it, that's just another excuse to kill it," said Rep. Keith Heard, D-Athens. "Don't hide behind the budget."

Mr. Tarver raised his concerns Thursday when University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll Davis spoke about budget matters with the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

He questioned why Mr. Davis would impose the systemwide belt-tightening at MCG and stop funding a $5 million annual research initiative while spending $3.8 million to hire faculty for the Athens campus and $4 million to expand residencies in Albany and Savannah.

Mr. Davis said sometimes temporary cuts have to be made to keep long-term goals on track.

"What I'm hopeful for is that we can maintain our medical programs at where they are now in Augusta as well as continuing to expand," he said.

The budget also includes $6 million for a building in Augusta that the medical and dental schools will use, Mr. Davis said.

"We have made a pretty robust commitment to Augusta ... and it will forever be our home base," he said.

Having a campus in Athens will foster more cooperative research between the University of Georgia and MCG, increasing joint research funding by 10 percent to 15 percent, which will help offset tuition, the chancellor said.

He hasn't convinced the Augusta legislators, who say they're acting independently.

"It's kind of a no-brainer for us,"said Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta.

She said Athens and nearby Gainesville don't have the same enthusiasm for MCG as Augusta. As evidence, she points to the lack of contracts with the hospitals in Athens and Gainesville to accept medical residents from the satellite campus.

MCG President Dan Rahn fielded questions about the residency contracts during the budget hearing Thursday. The consultant hired to secure them should have them by July, he promised.

Mr. Heard argues that stopping the progress now would make little sense, especially with valuable property in downtown Athens, at the site of the former O'Malley's nightclub and the Navy Supply Corps School.

"When are you going to have another chance at getting another property like that, as valuable as that property is?" he said. "I think we need to go on with this. We still have a need for doctors, no matter what the times are."

Ms. Sims counters that the existing program in Augusta will produce new doctors quicker.

"It's not about a turf war. Everybody tries to play it that way," she said. "It's about sensible use of the money and what we have available at the present."

Mr. Tarver is more blunt.

"Is this medical campus nothing more than a monument to the legacy of Sonny Perdue and (UGA President) Michael Adams, and not really designed to meet the physician needs in this state?" he asks.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com