By TYLER ELLYSON
LINCOLN – Calling it an opportunity to “change rural Nebraska forever,” University of Nebraska at Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen and other testifiers voiced their support Thursday for a project that would expand health care education at UNK.
Speaking before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, Kristensen promoted the proposed Nebraska Rural Health Education Building as a way to address urgent health care workforce shortages while strengthening communities across the state.
“The pandemic has had a major impact on every facet of rural health providers. Clinics and hospitals can confirm the problems they have in hiring staff to provide care to the residents of this state,” he told lawmakers. “These shortages limit the health care that we in rural Nebraska can access, and they severely impact the ability of communities to attract new residents and businesses.”
LB721, which allocates $60 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to the project, is a chance to deliver the high-quality health care rural Nebraska desperately needs and deserves, Kristensen said. “Our goal today is to take once-in-a-lifetime federal funds and expand the world-class skills of UNMC in such a meaningful way that we can change rural Nebraska forever.”
A collaboration between UNK and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the Rural Health Education Building would grow the state’s talent pipeline by expanding the existing UNMC programs offered in Kearney and bringing new options to the UNK campus, including medical nutrition, genetic counseling and respiratory care – all high-need areas in rural Nebraska.
For the first time, the UNMC College of Medicine would educate physicians in rural Nebraska, and a Master of Health Administration would be added to complement UNK’s undergraduate program. Discussion is also underway for the UNMC College of Pharmacy to offer a joint degree program with UNK, which will enhance its undergraduate curriculum to ensure future UNMC students have the highest quality of preparation for rural health service.
The project builds upon an already successful partnership between UNK and UNMC. The two institutions opened a $19 million Health Science Education Complex on UNK’s west campus in 2015, and that facility quickly filled to capacity. More than 300 students are currently pursuing degrees there in over a dozen professional programs, including cardiovascular interventional technology, diagnostic medical sonography, magnetic resonance imaging, medical laboratory science, nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, physician assistant and radiography.
About 85% of the students who graduate from this building start their careers in Nebraska.
“We know students who have been educated in UNMC’s programs at UNK stay in Nebraska, and most choose to live and practice in rural areas,” UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey Gold said during Thursday’s hearing. “Educating health care professionals close to home keeps them closer to home, which improves health care access in rural areas and contributes to a community’s economic vitality. Our current programs on the UNK campus, which opened now over five years ago, have been highly successful in these regards.”
To be located directly north of the Health Science Education Complex, the new Rural Health Education Building would complement that facility both aesthetically and programmatically, offering state-of-the-art technology, active-learning classrooms, simulation and anatomy labs and clinical space. Together, the buildings would serve as a hub for health education in rural Nebraska, supporting collaborative research that improves the lives of all residents and providing professional development, training and continuing education opportunities for existing health care workers.
Student Regent Noah Limbach, who plans to practice health care near his hometown of Kearney, also testified in support of the project. He’s among the roughly 800 students currently enrolled in health science programs at UNK.
“Our students go into health care to better their communities, and the pipeline that UNK has built into the health care field is admirable,” Limbach said. “However, there is a great need for additional resources in order for us to grow our health care network in rural Nebraska. This project will provide the education, training and culture needed to allow students like myself to stay in rural Nebraska and provide help to those who make our rural communities so special.”
The Rural Health Education Building has an estimated cost of $85 million, with $25 million coming from private funds. It could be completed as early as 2025.
Meanwhile, both UNK and UNMC are developing additional strategies to work with rural Nebraska communities to recruit and retain future health care workers.