Opinion editor’s note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
As a new gubernatorial task force weighs the future of the University of Minnesota’s health sciences programs, an Oct. 31 groundbreaking ceremony in Iowa signals that other universities are already putting into reality ambitious plans to modernize and strengthen their medical centers and health education programs.
The recent event on the University of Iowa’s campus celebrated the hole in the ground that will become a $249 million Health Sciences Academic Building. The 263,000-square-foot, six-story project will be the new home of the UI’s nationally respected communication sciences and disorders department, as well as the departments of health and human physiology and physical therapy and rehabilitation science.
Yet another groundbreaking looms for an even bigger Iowa health care addition: a new 842,000-square-foot inpatient tower, with a projected cost of $1 billion. Other projects include adding capacity to the children’s hospital on campus, with the investments part of a 10-year strategic plan.
University President Barbara Wilson explained the plans with clarity in her groundbreaking remarks: “You all know that the growth of UI Hospitals and Clinics is critical to everything we do on this campus.”
While the bold vision in Iowa City is commendable, the work underway there illustrates the stiff competition that the University of Minnesota’s medical center and health care programs face. That’s why Minnesota’s new gubernatorial health task force has a critically important assignment — and ought to think big as it continues its work.
Across the nation, numerous public and private schools are launching medical schools and constructing new buildings to house and position health care education programs for the future. It’s a logical reaction given the historic health care workforce shortages and the spinoff economic benefits that university-based medical hubs provides.
Minnesotans have seen this for themselves. The University of Minnesota’s academic health center is a vital reason the state is world-class medical technology hub and medical research and care destination. That success, however, requires sustained innovation and investment, particularly given the academic health center construction arms race underway nationally.
The Minnesota task force began its work last month and has a tight deadline, with a report to the Legislature expected in January. Leading the group is Jan Malcolm, a respected former state health commissioner whose presence inspires confidence.
Still, the task force’s assignment is daunting. Its formation last summer came in the wake of a failed merger between Fairview Health and South Dakota-based Sanford Health. Fairview, a private health care system, acquired the U’s teaching hospitals in 1997.
Fairview’s proposed merger with the out-of-state health care system generated controversy over much of the past year. The tension between the U and Fairview leadership led to understandable questions about whether the partnership should continue or whether the U should take back ownership of the facilities.
The task force won’t advise on that question — a mistake, in our view. But it will tackle broader questions about the “governance and oversight of any publicly funded health professions education,” as well as “short-, medium-, and long-term funding needs to support the vision for academic health and the role of the State of Minnesota and various clinical partners in meeting these funding needs,” according to the executive order from Gov. Tim Walz.
The University of Iowa’s path forward is an interesting regional model for the Minnesota task force to consider. The new health sciences academic building will foster collaboration between top-ranked programs and help attract world-class faculty — a goal worthy of emulation.
As for the UI’s new inpatient tower, it’s an example of the ongoing investment a successful academic health center requires. Worth noting: The tower won’t rely on state dollars. Instead it will be “funded by patient revenue, Medicaid directed payments and the $70 million gift from the Richard O. Jacobson Foundation, which is the largest gift in the university’s history,” according to a UI spokesman.
The Iowa City construction boom underscores that other states have ambitious health care strategies and are moving ahead. That lends urgency to the Minnesota task force’s work and even more important, how the Legislature handles the group’s recommendations.
The next session at the Capitol will come at a critical time. Thoughtful, timely action is paramount to build on the task force’s work and take the next steps to ensure that Minnesota remains a health care standout far into the future.