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Watson proposes ambitious plan to bring medical school to Austin

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

As mayor, Kirk Watson brought business to downtown Austin. As chair of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, he spearheaded the passage of the region’s toll road system. Now, as two-term senator, Watson has announced what he considers his most ambitious goal yet: to bring a medical school, teaching hospital and health science center to Austin.


The project is considered a daunting task, one with a mind-boggling price tag that Watson and his supporters were loath to define on Tuesday afternoon. Most likely, it could be in the range of billions, rather than millions, although Watson brushed aside efforts by reporters to pin him down on a particular cost estimate.


“Establishing a medical school and health science center stands as a unique chance to simultaneously fulfill the vast promise of our intellectual economy while meeting the real healthcare needs of Central Texans,” Watson told a standing room only crowd at the Real Estate Council of Austin on Tuesday. “In this way, I think it represents the pillar of what will be a fourth transitional period for our region. We’ve had our Settlement, Stability and Smart transitions – think of this one as Synthesis.” The crowd at the RECA luncheon gave Watson a standing ovation.


“This is the moment,” Watson said. “This is our chance.”


Right now, Watson wants people to buy into a concept and the idea that this region must create a plan to move forward on goals over the next decade. Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who will serve on a proposed steering committee along with County Judge Sam Biscoe, said such an accomplishment would be the biggest thing to happen in Austin in his lifetime.


“I think it’s that big,” Leffingwell said. “Not only will it improve health services in Austin, we also have a shortage of doctors here in Austin right now.”


The members of Watson’s proposed steering committee give clues, more than anything else, as to how Watson might put this deal together: the chancellor of the University of Texas system; the CEOs of St. David’s and Seton hospital systems; the health care district; the Livestrong Foundation; other philanthropic leaders; the Greater Austin Chamber; and, of course, Leffingwell and Biscoe.


Watson outlined a list of “10 goals in 10 years,” and within those goals were the seeds of solutions for discussions that have been going on for years among the various stakeholders. It goes something like this: If we have synthesis of our current assets and issues, what community issues can we resolve?


Some of the solutions Watson believes a medical complex could bring to Austin include:


  • Expanding the number of doctors who train, and often decide to stay in a region after residency, a concern of Seton’s;
  • Broaden the types of services provided at the city’s health care clinics, including mental health services, without a significant price tag;
  • Incorporate the expansion of the medical examiner’s office, which could be incorporated into the overall medical complex;
  • Create a bioscience incubator which would leverage both the current research at the University of Texas and the budding science community; and
  • Put a focus on cancer research, with the help of state seed money and the Livestrong Foundation, to create a new emphasis on cancer care in Austin.

“This is a program that’s much bigger than this committee and even the folks in this room. This is a program for our community,” Watson told the gathering. “It requires the contributions of more people, from more segments of our community, than any single program I’ve seen in more than 20 years of public life.”


The estimated impact of building that kind of synergy in the Austin community could amount to a workforce of about 15,000 in the biosciences, and an impact of $2 billion on the Austin economy. Asked to peg the cost, Kenneth Shine of the UT System said a $2 billion to $4 billion estimate of the cost might be substantially reduced if existing assets could be leveraged.


Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, asked how science would be shared among the various system science research campuses and whether an Austin effort might steal the thunder of research in San Antonio, expressed confidence that adding a medical school and teaching hospital in Austin would not take away from other UT health science campuses. Instead, it would build on Austin’s strengths.


Biscoe supports the broader concept, but admitted the decade-long timeline might be an issue when it came to the expanded medical examiner’s office, which is currently housed in a facility owned by the city. Travis County provides autopsies for 45 counties that still have yet to share the cost of facilities, Biscoe said. The need to expand the facility will come sooner, rather than later.


And Trish Young, CEO of the Central Health District, said her interpretation of Watson’s of new “Austin-style clinics” would likely rely more heavily on leveraging medical school resources to work along clinic staff, rather than new bricks-and-mortar facilities.

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