Budget crisis could make it difficult to resurrect SIU oncology plans

Staff Writer

A hoped-for academic pipeline at Springfield’s medical school to produce a steady stream of cancer doctors for patients in central and southern Illinois was quashed by the two-year state budget crisis.

Even though the crisis was resolved last week after the Illinois House and Senate overrode vetoes of Gov. Bruce Rauner, a proposal to establish an oncology training program now could take years to be resurrected.

The Springfield campus of Southern Illinois University School of Medicine had hoped to welcome the first two doctors this summer for a planned three-year fellowship program in oncology-hematology, according to Dr. Aziz Khan, executive director of SIU’s Simmons Cancer Institute.

But that plan — which would have cost about up to $450,000 per year for trainees’ salaries and benefits — was put on hold two years ago, Khan said. That’s when finances began to tighten for the medical school and the two Springfield hospitals that provide the school millions of dollars in financial support each year.

“This is a big loss, I feel, for the community,” Khan said.

Even with adequate funding, Khan said the soonest the program could start now — allowing time for required final approvals by SIU and professional organizations, as well as recruiting students known as “fellows” — would be summer 2019.

It’s too early to know when and whether efforts to start up an oncology fellowship program will resume, Dr. Jerry Kruse, dean and provost of the medical school, said Friday.

When fully operational, the program, which would produce doctors who diagnose cancer and manage treatments such as chemotherapy, would enroll six students, Khan said. There would be two students in each of the three years of the program.

An impending nationwide shortage of oncologists, and difficulties in attracting such specialists to downstate Illinois, could make an oncology fellowship crucial to the quality of life in the Springfield area as the population ages, Khan said. Cancer, he said, tends to be “a disease of the older patients,” and oncologists tend to settle in the areas where they train.

An adequate supply of oncologists allows patients to be seen and treated on a timely basis at Springfield’s Memorial Medical Center, HSHS St. John’s Hospital and other medical facilities in Springfield, he said.

Khan said patients travel from throughout the region to come to the cancer institute, and many prefer a medium-size community such as Springfield rather than a big city like St. Louis.

Lost revenue, staff

SIU School of Medicine, like other higher education institutions, has been affected by funding shortages associated with the state budget crisis.

The medical school operates with a $180 million annual budget — $38 million of that coming from the state in a normal year. The lack of a regular state budget for two years prompted the school to build into its budget a 12 percent cut in state allocations, or spending cuts of about $7 million.

The pay of SIU doctors was cut 5 percent during the budget impasse, and that move, along with financial uncertainty about the future, resulted in several SIU surgeons and other specialists resigning for jobs elsewhere.

The constraints facing SIU prompted…