Can we afford not to fund graduate medical education?

Special to South Jersey Sunday

Two issues pending in Washington, D.C., have the potential to determine whether or not New Jersey will have enough doctors to meet the needs of the state’s growing and aging population.

It is estimated that, by 2020, our state will be short 2,800 physicians. Recently, the UMDNJ Advisory Committee appointed by Gov. Chris Christie called the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine “…an academic jewel that produces primary care physicians who practice in every corner of the State and particularly in Southern New Jersey.” Behind our success are training partnerships with seven hospitals systems across the state.

Like many medical schools across the country, we have responded aggressively to the looming physician shortage. In just the past few years, we have increased the number of medical students at SOM by 50 percent. Further, when students graduate from medical school, they begin several additional years of training in graduate medical education (GME) programs.

It is there that they hone the skills that are demanded of their chosen medical specialties. Working in concert with our hospital partners, we have raised the number of trainees in our GME programs by 20 percent. South Jersey Healthcare has recently joined Kennedy University Hospital, our principal hospital affiliate, Lourdes Health System and Cooper University Hospital in helping fuel that growth in South Jersey.

For hospitals to continue to work with us to train the doctors New Jersey needs, they must first have stable funding. While tuition, state support, grants and philanthropy cover most of the cost of undergraduate medical school education, financial support for GME training comes largely from the federal Medicare program. More than a decade ago, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 put a cap on the number of GME training positions available nationwide.

As the number of medical school graduates increases, hospitals also must be able to increase GME training slots. Recently, Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced S-1627, the Resident Physician Shortage Act of 2011, to relax these constraints and permit us to prepare the doctors our state needs. Yet, despite the looming shortage of physicians around the country, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (“Super Committee”) is considering cuts to the Medicare funding that is vital to GME.

I urge the citizens of New Jersey to join in asking their U.S. Representatives and Senators to request that the “Super Committee” explore fiscally responsible ways to sustain GME funding. Contact U.S. Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and encourage them to join Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Senators from New Jersey’s neighboring states, Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Robert Casey (D-Pa.), as co-sponsors of S-1627.

Their actions will support SOM’s ability to work with hospitals across the state to meet New Jersey’s physician needs. The future of your health care may depend upon it.

Dr. Thomas Cavalieri is dean of the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford.

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