UC Berkeley School of Public Health considers eliminating medical school program

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In light of the campus’s budget deficit and restructuring efforts, the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, or JMP, faces potential elimination.

In February, UC Berkeley administrators sent out a “budget call letter” to the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, or SPH, with instructions on how to plan for financial adjustments. The administration set a 3 percent budget reduction target for all campus professional schools in an effort to address the campus’s annual $150 million structural deficit.

In response, the SPH, in which JMP is housed, drafted a list of options to generate revenue and cut costs. Shutting down the program or moving it solely to UCSF are two options presented on the shortlist that are being seriously considered, according to a statement from Linda Anderberg, a spokesperson for the SPH.

Faculty and students in the program, though, point to the revenue it creates for the school — which they say makes it an unusual contender for the budget chopping block.

“We actually bring money to the campus, and so if they close us, they are going to lose at least $2 million,said associate professor at the SPH and director of the JMP Masters of Science program Coco Auerswald. Out of (a large) deficit, this isn’t to be ignored.”

Students at the medical program have already rallied against its potential closure, starting a website and a petition to save the program. As of Wednesday evening, the petition gathered 858 signatures, though few campus students are aware that there is a UC Berkeley medical program.

The five-year program provides 16 students every year the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in health and medical sciences from the SPH and a medical doctorate from UCSF.

“It’s irresponsible to even talk about closing any medical school,” said second-year JMP student Josh Pepper. “Particularly a school that focuses on primary care.”

The program generated approximately $2.4 million in funds during the 2015-16 fiscal year for the campus from tuition, faculty full-time equivalents and state funds, according to the SPH. In the same year, the school received $1.2 million from the UC Office of the President’s allocation of state funds independent of campus tuition.

According to Auerswald, however, the program receives only a small portion of those funds. It directly received $1.4 million in the 2015 fiscal year, while it costs $1.9 million dollars per year to run the program. Thus, the SPH loses about $500,000 per year.

It is hard to fathom, said director of JMP John Balmes, how UC Berkeley cannot come up with the additional money the program needs to run, given the difference between operating costs and revenue it currently receives.

“We’re not beggars — although if I were a beggar for this program, I’d be fine with it,” said Auerswald, who is an alumna of JMP. “But we’re not — we’ve been ripped off.”

The question of the program’s viability is one for SPH’s leadership, said campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. The campus administration, he added, does not look specifically at the finances of programs within each professional school, and decisions about program funding are ultimately made by each school.

The campus administration announced in February the creation of the Office of Strategic Initiatives, dedicated to coordinating the campus’s large-scale budget and structural overhaul.

For the SPH, a 3 percent budget reduction represents more than $1 million, excluding research contracts and grants, according to Mogulof. Budget reductions are set to take effect July 1.

The school has engaged with campus administration to discuss different financial solutions for the program, according to Anderberg.

She added that campus administrators have the final say on budget targets, but within the school, there is some flexibility in deciding how to meet these targets. The school is considering options to close or move the program seriously, as this would address a substantial percentage of the budget deficit, Anderberg said in a statement.

Auerswald said that as a professional school, the program needs to contribute financially to the campus but added that it needs to be “more symbiotic, (a model) that permits us to continue to thrive and grow and contribute to the campus, not the current one which will not allow us to survive and hurts the School of Public Health.”

By learning through medical cases in a team-based approach, Auerswald said, it is as if each student in the JMP program writes their own medical textbook and then teaches it to one another, adding that “pretty quickly, students run the show.”

About 70 percent of JMP graduates go into primary care, according to Auerswald, compared with 20 percent of graduates at other medical schools around the country.

“That’s what California needs right now,” Balmes said. “We rank 43rd in the nation in terms of primary care populations we have. The Affordable Care Act created greater demands among low-income individuals that need primary care.”

The California state Legislature, according to Auerswald, created the medical program with the goal of fostering a socially conscious approach to medicine. UC Berkeley partnered with UCSF to host the program in 1978. Fifteen years later, the program merged into the SPH.

With budget reductions, the campus expects to provide almost $20 million to the SPH for the 2016-17 fiscal year. If implemented, the majority of the budget-cutting strategies proposed by the school would not go into effect until fall 2018.

Contact Sofia Gonzalez-Platas at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sgonzalezplatas.