Las Vegas Sun

August 21, 2014

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WHERE I STAND:

Southern Nevada med school would help whole state

“There’s somethin’ happenin’ here.

“What it is ain’t exactly clear …”

With thanks to Buffalo Springfield for the inspiration and an even bigger thank-you to Howard Hughes, the late billionaire and former Las Vegas resident, for actually creating the impetus for Las Vegas to make a quantum leap into the 21st century, it appears that Nevada may be heading toward a much brighter future.

Whether it happens here ain’t exactly clear, just yet.

This past week’s more-than-public announcement that the presidents of UNLV and UNR signed a letter of intent that should pave the way for a first-class medical school at UNLV was either a breath of very fresh air or another puff of the same old stale smoke that has been blowing our way for decades from our friends up north. Time will tell which it is, but for now, to all the Nevadans who have been looking for a way to get past the geographical differences that have always separated both ends of the state: We are not quite there. Yet.

A little background. In 1964, it was well-known throughout Nevada that we were woefully underserved by the medical community and that a main reason was Nevada’s lack of a medical school. When Paul Laxalt became governor, he set out to change the status quo but realized it would be challenging because of the money it took to create such a school and the nature of the political rivalry between the north and the south, which would make choosing the location practically impossible.

Enter Hughes, the richest man on the planet, or at least on our part of the planet. He brought to Las Vegas his incredible passion for science and medicine as well as his very practical passion for doing business and doing all he could to make sure that his businesses did well.

It was a perfect fit. So when Hughes informed Laxalt that he would commit between $5 million and $6 million over a period of years, his offer paved the way for the medical school — and did quite a bit of paving for his other endeavors, which he pursued with vigor while he was in Las Vegas.

And even though Las Vegas was clearly outpacing Reno in terms of growth and future population, the case was made almost 45 years ago that UNR should be the home for a medical school in the Silver State. Ever since, the failure of the Legislature to provide the funds to create an independent medical school in Las Vegas, among other obvious needs at UNLV, has been a major sticking point every two years when the north and south do battle over tax revenue.

The vast majority of Nevada taxpayers live and work in Clark County. In fact, the medical school issue has been a model for the parity fight between the conservative, stable and happy north vs. the progressive, growing and restless south.

Lately, though, the battle lines have been drawn more sharply, in part due to data supplied by Brookings Mountain West at UNLV. The data provide fact-based arguments that, frankly, cannot be disputed by our Northern Nevada neighbors. The handwriting on the wall has become clearer and, coupled with a major transition in the Legislature that saw the north’s power diminished, it is just a matter of time before the next big north-south war commences with the outcome no longer in question.

Enter the medical school debate. Thanks to the Lincy Foundation’s work at UNLV, and its sponsorship of the Tripp Umbach study just completed, the case has been made that Southern Nevada not only needs a medical school but also that creating the school in partnership for the first few years with UNR is the best, most efficient way to accomplish that task. Mind you, the study concluded that it would be a short-term partnership with Reno. The study called for UNLV to take absolute control of its own medical school in 2020 because that was the only way the necessary fundraising could be achieved.

By the way, did I mention that the study also shows the economic impact to the entire state of the current medical school is just $285 million? That’s the smallest impact of practically any medical school in the country.

By creating this short-term partnership, the impact to the entire state will grow to close to $1 billion in just six years. In doing so, the economic boost to Northern Nevada would increase substantially. In short, this is a win-win for both the north and the south.

And therein lies the opportunity for something to be happening here. Something very good, or very bad.

When Hughes made his offer to help, he did so without the kind of strings that a Southern Nevadan might attach or a Northern Nevadan might require. He left it to the state to determine where the school should go.

And ever since, there has been a fight.

The plan that was committed to writing this week presents what could be a new paradigm. If there is good faith attached to that agreement, we get what we want and need in the southern part of the state while not adversely affecting — in fact, by positively benefiting — our neighbors to the north. But if not, I am afraid this thing could get ugly.

And, just in case you are wondering, it’s not all about the economic impact. Building and operating a first-class medical school will enhance the quality of medical care throughout the region. We are talking quality of life and not just quantity of dollars.

What will be important to watch as we follow the creation of the medical school at UNLV is whether the commitment to this new paradigm holds strong through the challenges ahead. We will know soon enough because the regents will have to deal with the removal of some restrictive rules that seem to prevent the very thing UNLV has just agreed to do: create a medical school of its own in just six years.

There is a determination in the south that I have not seen in decades. It is a belief that we will cooperate where we can to get what we need done now. But, if not, we will still get what we need done now some other way. That understanding has been fueled by a population no longer complacent and comfortable with being a stepchild of the north.

I believe we should take the regents and Chancellor Dan Klaich at their word when they say UNLV will have its own medical school by 2020. But I also believe we should move forward with a wary eye toward the game-playing that we have been used to for many, many decades.

To misquote a good friend of mine, the era of big government investment only for the north is over. There needs to be something good happening here.

And that is exactly clear.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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