A draft budget bill the Texas Senate passed Tuesday would not have a tremendous effect on the University of Texas Medical Branch’s educational operations, but could have big implications for its ability to treat the poor and the incarcerated.

The $106.3 billion budget for the next two years is austere, reflecting budget cuts caused by a decline in state oil revenue. Among other things, it proposes closing a state prison and foregoes increased funding for pre-kindergarten programs, a priority of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Senate’s bill also whacks at the budget for state universities, after the Senate’s Finance Committee went forward with a plan to remove so-called “special items,” a major source of money for many schools, and to spread the money saved evenly across Texas’ 38 four-year universities.

Some schools could lose as much as 10 percent of funding, according to the Texas Tribune.

The cuts are less severe at medical schools such as the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

The medical branch would lose $29.4 million in special-item funding for projects such as a new Biocontainment Critical Care Unit for treating people suffering highly infectious diseases, said Dr. Ben Raimer, the medical branch’s senior vice president of Health Policy and Legislative Affairs.

But the change in formula funding resulted in an increase of slightly more than $29 million for instruction, operations and research support, compared to what was approved during the session, he said.

The difference would reduce the medical branch’s education funding by just 0.7 percent, Raimer said.

Still, cuts in special items could have implications for some programs. Along with the biocontainment unit, which has been designed and is ready for construction, special-item funding was to pay for a home dialysis program, a training program for primary-care physicians and help pay for care of indigent patients.

“It would mean the end of those programs in their current state, unless we shifted money from other critical things,” he said.

Indigent care at the medical branch faces other cuts, as well. The Senate’s bill leaves just $147,814 in unclaimed lottery money that had been providing $4.9 million to fund indigent care.

The Senate’s budget also does little to address needs at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Galveston Hospital on the medical branch campus. The hospital building needs $22 million in repairs, and the budget proposal approved Tuesday makes it clear those repairs are to be borne by the medical branch and not the justice department.

“The University of Texas Medical Branch is responsible for paying the cost of repairs, renovations, and maintenance of Hospital Galveston,” according to the budget document.

“The Department of Criminal Justice shall not use appropriations for correctional managed health care to fund any UTMB costs related to facility repairs.”

Other reductions in correctional health care amount to $140.8 million budget cut, Raimer said. If that number remains, the medical branch may have to consider reducing the number of patients it treats, he said.

Senate approval is only the first step in developing the state’s biennial budget. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on its budget next week, after which a conference committee will be formed to reconcile differences in the two bills.

Contact reporter John Wayne Ferguson at 409-683-5226 or john.ferguson@galvnews.com. Follow him on Twitter, @johnwferguson.

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