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Senator Leading Charge for Austin Medical School

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, is on a mission to build a standalone medical school in Austin, and he's taking an unconventional route to get there.

Texas State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, presents his plans for a medical school before the West Austin Democrats.

During the latest monthly meeting of West Austin Democrats, state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin captivated his fellow party members with a pitch he has nearly perfected over the last several months.

Speaking with his trademark Texas twang, Watson, a lawyer and former Austin mayor, reminded about 50 constituents that their hometown is the epicenter of state politics, with a vibrant culture and plenty of intellectual capital. He also told them it is one of the few cities in the nation that is home to a top-tier research university but is without its own standalone medical school.

Watson told them he wants to lead the charge to build a full-fledged medical program in Austin within 10 years, part of a larger health-related initiative. And he has pursued an unconventional route to that goal, forming an organizing committee with community institutions to develop public-private partnerships.

“It’ll mean more jobs, better health, better quality of life,” Watson said of his initiative.

His vision is not a hard sell. The Texas Medical Association has warned of a critical shortage of doctors available to treat the state’s fast-growing population.

But some say Austin’s advantages — including its socioeconomic diversity, existing hospital partnerships and political clout — could upend the state’s traditional approach to building brick-and-mortar medical schools in Texas, which currently has nine such programs.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, has long steered the effort to open a medical school in the poverty-stricken Rio Grande Valley. Lucio is keen on reminding others that numerous higher education entities have indicated that South Texas should be next in line for a four-year medical institution. He cited statistics showing the area’s population — which includes a high concentration of low-income residents and veterans — suffers from a higher incidence of diabetes, cancer and obesity compared with the rest of Texas.

“We may not have as much money, but we have more need,” said Lucio, who added that he understood Watson’s efforts. “I only fear it will take longer to accomplish our goal by trying to take this down the road at the same time.”

Watson rejected the notion that his efforts could stymie South Texas’ plans. He said he is attempting to work around a system hampered by politics and limited financing.

“I will not succumb to the zero-sum game that the state has tried to play when it comes to things like higher education and medical education,” said Watson, whose committee is planning a blueprint and a budget.

But it is unlikely either medical school will be built soon. In 2011, the Republican-dominated Legislature emphasized cutting spending. The next session may be no different.

Tom Banning, the chief executive of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians, said the state should focus on restoring financing for medical residencies, which were drastically reduced last session.

“We graduate somewhere around 1,500 medical students from our nine schools, but we only have around 1,400 residency slots,” Banning said. “Absent a place to send them to train — all you’re doing is shipping students out of state at a cost to taxpayers.”

Watson believes the Austin coalition is taking a long-range view — a vision that underscores the possibility of simultaneously building medical schools and training the next generation of doctors.

“It’s time to launch a new playbook for enhancing medical education,” he said.

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