Daily News staffers didn’t have to look far to find the obvious candidate for the newspaper’s inaugural Employer of the Year. No other organization had the combination of size, history and importance to the communities it serves.

The University of Texas Medical Branch was the clear choice.

“We’re very honored by this distinction,” medical branch President and CEO Dr. David L. Callender said.  

The medical department of the University of Texas opened for instruction at Galveston in October 1891 with 13 faculty members and 23 students, according to the Handbook of Texas. It was renamed the University of Texas Medical Branch in 1919.

Today, the medical branch is the largest employer in the county. The organization employs almost 12,000 people across the state, about 8,000 in Galveston County.

The medical branch’s overall annual payroll is about $1 billion, officials said.

Variety Of Jobs

It not only provides a lot of jobs, it provides a wide range of them. The medical branch employs highly educated medical professionals with years of advanced training, corporate executives, skilled trades people, office and clerical workers, writers, photographers, police officers and librarians, to name a more or less random few.

In late February, for example, the medical branch listed 277 job openings in Galveston alone. The

organization was looking to hire everybody from an adjunct professor for the School of Health Professions to a warehouse operations supervisor.

The gravity generated by such a large employer also benefits the community by attracting educated people of varied ethnicity and from all across the nation and the world.

“We’re extremely proud of our employees and their commitment and dedication,” Callender said.

“We are committed to providing a wide variety of primary and specialty care services throughout the area, educating and training the future health care work force for the state and conducting biomedical research that improves the quality of life for everyone.”

Tested By Ike

The medical branch’s continued presence in Galveston was tested beginning in September 2008, when Hurricane Ike flooded its campus, along with about three quarters of the island.

That blow came as the medical branch already was suffering from financial losses caused by changes in federal medical funding, state budget cuts and the rising costs of treating uninsured patients.

There were calls from some quarters, including from among powerful lawmakers, to move the state’s premier medical school inland, perhaps to Austin.

“We came so close to being extinguished compared to other cities and other institutions that have gone through something like this terrible storm,” Dr. Ben Raimer, senior vice president for health policy and legislative affairs at the medical branch, said at the time.

It was a sobering time for local leaders who, perhaps for the first time, were forced to ponder a future without the medical branch.  

Locals and other stakeholders, including medical students, rallied.

At stake was not just

thousands of jobs but also millions of dollars in other economic benefit lost to the region, said Lyda Ann Thomas, who was mayor of Galveston at the time.

“It’s one of the three main, and I think probably the biggest, economic drivers in terms of economic recovery from the storm,” she said.

And that was not the worst threat.

“At times when you have disasters like Ike, having UTMB here with the state-of-art health care it can provide saves many, many lives.”

Rebuilding, Expanding

In the end, state lawmakers appropriated $566.5 million to the medical branch for the next two years, including funding that would allow the institution to return hospital capacity to pre-Hurricane Ike levels and resume treating indigent patients.

When insurance proceeds, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and public and private matches made possible by state appropriations are tallied, the medical branch got $1.4 billion to restore and expand services.

Since the storm, the medical branch has been rebuilding and improving facilities damaged by Ike, and expanding both on the island and the mainland.

The campus revitalization included about 200 construction projects involving 2,500 workers. Chief among those projects is the new Jennie Sealy Hospital. The $438 million project got under way last year. The 310-bed hospital tower is expected to be open in 2016.

The new island hospital is being paid for by $150 million in tuition revenue bonds approved by the state Legislature, $18 million in medical branch funds and $270 million in philanthropy, which includes $170 million from The Sealy & Smith Foundation.

The medical branch also has plans for a $90 million translational research building and a $80 million interdisciplinary education building.

The organization, which has long employed many people living in the county’s mainland communities, also has expanded its medical presence there since the 2008 storm.

Victory Lakes Campus

The medical branch in 2010 opened a $61 million Specialty Care Center at

Victory Lakes, 2240 Interstate 45, in League City.

The 110,000-square-foot center offers state-of-the-art imaging services, outpatient surgery, a breast health center, a full-service laboratory and other specialty services.

In February, the medical brach broke ground on a $90 million expansion of its Victory Lakes facilities. The project will add 142,000 square feet of clinical space that would allow for 39 patient beds and inpatient stays of up to 72 hours, among other additions.

The development is valued at $82 million. In a related project, the medical branch will build an $8 million central plant to provide utilities to its 62-acre Victory Lakes campus.

The cost of the $90 million expansion in Victory Lakes would be paid for by revenue financing system bonds, to be repaid from revenues generated by the development, officials said.

The central plant is scheduled to be completed in August 2014; the clinical space is scheduled for completion in February 2015.

Countywide Presence

“I think UTMB is an outstanding choice for Employer of the Year,” County Judge Mark Henry said. “It’s clear they cover the entire county. We’re lucky to have such a fine institution, not just in our county, but across our county.”

The medical branch generates $4 billion in total spending, $2 billion in output of goods and services and 26,000 permanent jobs for the state of Texas each year, according to its annual impact of education and patient care report.

It generates $2 billion in total spending, $1 billion in output and 15,000 permanent jobs in Galveston County, according to that report.

It contributes $96 million each year in tax revenue offsets to the state and $56 million to local entities, according to the report.

After years in the red, the organization ended fiscal years 2010 and 2011 with positive operating margins, which meant revenues were ahead of expenses, and broke even in 2012.

“I think we are on a good path,” Callender said.

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