Gov. Mike Beebe will ask a subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council next month for approval to use "rainy-day funds" to aid Arkansas students seeking advanced degrees in high-demand health fields not offered in the state.
The action is necessary because the General Assembly paid little attention to the dwindling reserves in the fund used to finance scholarships for these students and others. In fact, lawmakers showed little interest in higher education during their regular session, being preoccupied by extending gun rights, prohibiting abortions and dealing with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Arkansas offers no graduate degrees in a number of health-care fields, including dentistry, optometry, veterinary medicine and osteopathy.
Of course, we need practitioners in those fields in our state so we depend on sending our students to out-of-state schools, in hopes they will return, and attracting degreed practitioners to jobs here.
Arkansas students attending medical colleges in other states generally face much higher tuition and fees than those states’ own students — maybe $25,000 or $30,000 more per year.
The purpose behind the Arkansas Health Education Grant is to cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for Arkansas students so they can pursue degrees in medical fields. Although there is no requirement for those students to return to their home state, obviously we hope they’ll be grateful enough to return and fill the need for practitioners.
Unfortunately, for several years the Legislature has been shortchanging higher education to pay the bills in other critical areas, such as public schools, prisons, Medicaid and legislative expense funds. The lottery scholarship program gave a boost to higher education, but we’re now learning that boost may not be as high or as permanent as we had hoped.
The Arkansas Health Exchange Program is one of a couple dozen financial-aid programs administered by the state Department of Higher Education, and the cost exceeds the $28 million annually the Legislature provided. The difference has come from reserve funds, but those funds have diminished to the point that choices must be made.
It’s a shame the General Assembly couldn’t have anticipated this problem and dealt with it instead of cutting taxes for the wealthy. We shouldn’t have to use the rainy-day fund for higher education; it should be for a crisis we can’t foresee — a tornado or ice storm.
Higher education, especially for health-care fields, is an investment that must get a high priority. Nearly 50 students qualified for these grants for this fall; each committed to graduate studies and had reason to expect the state’s assistance. Where is the state’s commitment?
This is not a one-time problem that can be fixed permanently with the $1.1 million Gov. Beebe is requesting. The nearly 50 students will have the same problem again next year.
Lawmakers should not only approve use of these funds but, more importantly, should push for a permanent solution.
Meanwhile, Arkansas State University is looking at such a solution for one of these health-care fields. Last week ASU-Jonesboro Chancellor Tim Hudson announced that the university is exploring public-private partnerships that could lead to establishing an osteopathic medical school in Jonesboro.
That could mean training home-grown osteopathic physicians and perhaps attracting out-of-state students, too.
An ASU alumni newsletter said that the United States has 29 certified osteopathic medical colleges at 37 locations, but the nearest to Jonesboro are at Kansas City, Tulsa, Okla., and Hattiesburg, Miss.
"Doctors of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) are fully trained physicians who complete four years of medical school and are licensed by state medical boards to prescribe medication, perform surgery and practice in all recognized medical specialties," the newsletter said. "Many osteopathic physicians incorporate manipulative treatment, which involves using the hands to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness or injury."
The American Osteopathic Society says the field is one of the fastest growing segments of the health-care professions in the United States. Among some 70,000 osteopathic physicians nationwide are 450 licensed in Arkansas, of whom 265 are in active practice, the State Medical Board said.
Hudson doesn’t plan to seek state funding for the medical school, which is probably wise considering the Legislature’s lack of interest in higher education. Instead, ASU would seek private funding to establish the school, then would count on tuition, research and external support to operate it.
A partnership with an existing school would be considered, at least in the beginning. The chancellor said the model has been successful in several states, including Alabama, Arizona, Oregon and South Carolina.
Typically, such a program would involve four years of training — two years of coursework and another two years of internships at physicians’ clinics. Leaders of two major health-care organizations in Jonesboro, — St. Bernard’s Healthcare and NEA Baptist Clinic — appear to be solidly behind the concept.
ASU is only beginning a feasibility study, but this is the sort of thing our state must do to meet the needs of the future, not only in this field but also in others.
For example, ASU could also be an ideal site for a veterinary medicine school. The university already has a strong agriculture program, and the most critical shortage for veterinarians is in the area of large-animal vets.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.