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UC Merced med school plan due today

SACRAMENTO — A key state official intends to unveil a plan today to urge UC Merced to scale back its medical school plans in favor of a stripped-down version that would turn out new doctors quickly.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a University of California regent, said Tuesday that if the university does not change course, the state's budget problems will stall progress on the school, which still requires final approval.

To save money, he wants the school to eliminate research programs.

He will urge the university to develop a "fast-track" curriculum in which high school graduates could earn medical degrees in as few as five years.

The revised program, he said, could be ready to go by the fall of 2010, three years sooner than the current plan.

"Absent a different path, it is probable that the UC Merced medical school will be significantly delayed," Garamendi said. "My goal is to propose an alternative that would create in short order a medical school to provide the doctors and other practitioners necessary for the San Joaquin Valley."

He plans to unveil the proposal today in Fresno. He will bring it up for discussion at a UC regents meeting next week, he said.

UC Merced officials have not seen the plan, but "we look forward to seeing and reviewing it," said Brandy Nikaido, a university spokeswoman.

The university last summer got the go-ahead from the UC Board of Regents to continue planning for the medical school. But since then, the state's budget problem has worsened considerably.

Lawmakers and Gov. Schwarzenegger have yet to agree on how to close a more than $40 billion state budget deficit forecast for the next 18 months. The situation is so dire that regents next week will have a special meeting to consider curtailing freshman enrollment at campuses for the 2009-10 academic year.

UC Merced had hoped to go before regents sometime this year for final approval of the medical school, but that could be pushed back.

"We would want to go when the economy shows signs of improvement," Nikaido said.

Under Garamendi's plan, students would be recruited from valley high schools. They would go to school year-round for three or four years to earn a science degree. Then students would do rotations at valley medical facilities for a couple of years before earning a medical degree and starting residencies.

"Unlike the other five UC medical schools where research competes with clinical practice, UC Merced's priority should be educating new doctors and nurses," Garamendi said.

The valley has long dealt with a doctor shortage. Civic leaders say a local medical school would help. The closest medical schools now are in San Francisco and Davis.

Garamendi said his plan would save money because some of the necessary courses are offered at UC Merced. Also, students could make use of labs at UC Merced and surrounding community colleges. He could not say exactly how much money would be saved by eliminating research. Other UC medical schools include medical centers that run programs to test diagnostic and therapeutic techniques.

UC Merced's preliminary plan calls for medical students to enter with undergraduate degrees in hand then take two years of classes on campus. For their third and fourth years, they would get clinical training at the University of California at San Francisco medical education program in Fresno.

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