New UK hospital boost for state; legislature must fund research space

Crowds touring the University of Kentucky's new palace of high-end medicine marveled at a hospital that has the power not just to heal the body but also lift the spirits with art and light.

Even more impressive than the architecture, though, are the numbers.

Since 2004, the aggressive expansion of UK's medical sector has produced more than 3,000 jobs, $300 million in new payroll and benefits, $1.3 billion of investment, 60 patents and 19 startup companies.

It's the equivalent of a major high-wage industry opening in Central Kentucky — in the midst of a near depression, no less — as well as a magnet for brainpower from around the world.

It's also tangible evidence that education pays, the motto of a governor who 14 years ago this month signed historic higher education reforms that raised UK's sights to academe's top tier.

(Just the construction has produced $72 million in private sector wages, $89 million in business for Kentucky vendors and the equivalent of 300 full-time jobs, according to UK.)

Congratulations to retiring UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., Dr. Michael Karpf, the executive vice president for health affairs, whom Todd recruited from UCLA in 2003, and also to the education-minded former Gov. Paul Patton.

What has been happening on the medical end of UK's campus helps fulfill reform's promise and the university's missions of teaching, public service and research.

The new hospital — the first part of which opened last week and which will be completed in phases — serves as the center of a growing network of Kentucky hospitals and medical providers whose goal, says Karpf, is to ensure that patients from the outset receive the care they need in the optimum setting.

The idea is that the most complicated cases — transplants, trauma, advanced surgery, pediatrics — from Kentucky and nearby states will be drawn to UK's advanced subspecialty care, while less complicated cases are treated nearer patients' homes.

The statewide alliances expand health care and educational opportunities, while students and medical residents while they also gain from learning and working alongside some of the best in their professions. UK's medical school applications have more than doubled.

Revenues generated by the new hospital are paying for its construction. No appropriations of tax dollars from the legislature have been needed or sought.

A $200 million quasi-endowment ensures that UK will be able to keep up with its loan payments on the hospital and continue borrowing at good rates, regardless of fluctuations in government policy, insurance payments or bad debt.

To maintain the momentum and capitalize on its investments, UK does need state funding for a new research building.

Space for medical researchers has just about run out. That's a great problem to have, since it means UK is attracting talent and federal grants. Plus, research creates jobs and is essential to keep attracting top clinicians, teachers and students.

If UK can get $100 million from the legislature next year, it can tap another $80 million to $100 million from grants to construct a research building.

The project, which is UK's top capital priority, was in Gov. Steve Beshear's budget last year but didn't make it through the legislature.

Lawmakers should see to it that the next state budget includes funding. As the numbers already show, it would be one of the smartest investments they could make.