Last year, Utah legislators shut down an effort to admit more medical students at the University of Utah despite a physician shortage that ranks among the worst in the country.
This year, the outlook appears rosier though it will still have to contend with other high-dollar desires in higher education.
SB42, sponsored by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, is more ambitious than last year's request, calling for $10 million to quickly replace 20 spots cut over the last four years and prepare for another 20 students, building toward a U. School of Medicine class of 122.
"Forty would have been the number we should have moved to during this time period to keep pace," Valentine said Friday on the Senate floor. "Doctors in my generation, the baby boom generation, they are retiring in droves. We need to make sure we are aware of this problem and we take proactive steps to [fix] it, and this is a proactive step to do it."
One of the first bills considered after the session opened Monday, it passed through the Senate Education committee unanimously and got another unanimous thumbs up with a second reading on the Senate floor Friday. The Senate is expected to vote on the proposal early this week; it will then go to the House for consideration.
If it passes, Dean Vivian Lee said, the school will admit 20 additional students this fall, and admit the other 20 students in the next two years.
Facing federal and state funding cuts, the medical school cut its annual class size to 82 students in 2009 a time when it should have been expanding, Lee said.
"There's no way we can keep up," Lee said, citing Utah's rapid population growth, an aging population and demands brought about by the new national health care law.
And when students leave the state go to medical school, they're less likely to practice in Utah, Valentine said, referencing a personal example.
"Having experienced this myself with my own son, who had to go out of state, to bring him back to Utah was tougher because he didn't have his residency here, he didn't have contacts here," said Valentine.
Only three states Wyoming, Arkansas, Idaho and Mississippi have fewer physicians per capita than Utah, which now has fewer than 10 doctors per 1,000 people, according to 2010 numbers from the Association of American Medical Colleges.
"Utah is in desperate need for more primary care physicians, particularly family physicians but also general internists and general pediatricians," said Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City. "Our rural Utahns are suffering the most."
Robles suggested requiring some number of students to focus on primary care. The bill currently requires that the new students have strong Utah ties.
Increasing tuition won't cover the cost of expanding the program, Lee said. At $30,460, in-state tuition in Utah is already above the national average of $26,300, according to the school.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert last year proposed using $6.5 million to bring the number of medical school students back up to 2008 levels, but it went down in favor of other higher education requests, including compensation. University leaders responded by traveling around the state to push the need for more doctors and drum up support for new funding, said Jason Perry, the U.'s vice-president for government relations.
"A lot of the groundwork had been put into place before this bill even came up," Perry said.
The Utah System of Higher Education is also asking for $20 million to fulfill Herbert's pledge of ensuring 66 percent of Utah residents have some postsecondary education by 2020, along with other budget requests totaling more than $70 million.