From the Dean: The Legislative session begins

This past year has been a trying one on many levels. The impact of the pandemic has been enormous of course. The suffering of many has been substantial, and the losses heart-wrenching. So, too, is the recent passing of Lonnie Laffen, former North Dakota senator and a principal at JLG Architects, the firm that coordinated the design and construction of the new UND SMHS building in Grand Forks. Lonnie was a kind, dedicated, thoughtful, and generous man who died too young. My thoughts go out to his widow Pam and his family. His was a life well-lived – but too short by far. I will miss him and his smile.

After a challenging 2020, the new year certainly is off to an interesting start! The good news is that the UND SMHS is starting the new year in good shape, having adapted well to the pandemic while continuing our essential missions of education, discovery, and service. One of my major challenges recently has been preparing for the just-commenced session of the North Dakota Legislative Assembly (“the Legislature”) that started its planned 80-day biennial session this past Tuesday with the State of the State address by Governor Doug Burgum. The School’s first official interaction with the Legislature will be on the afternoon of Jan. 18, 2021, when we’ll testify about the School’s proposed budget in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Grand Forks Sen. Ray Holmberg. I’ll post and share the slides from my testimony – and that of Dave Molmen, Interim CEO of Altru Health System, who is the chair of the UND SMHS Advisory Council – following the presentation, but here are some previews. I plan to start with a brief history of the School and then outline our recent accomplishments in the areas of education, discovery, and service, focusing on the positive impact of the Healthcare Workforce Initiative across the state. I’ll then outline where we hope to go in the future, especially regarding health care workforce supply in North Dakota. Dave Molmen will then testify on behalf of the UND SMHS Advisory Council and, on its behalf, recommend three key budget actions: 1) adoption of the needs-based budget that has been endorsed by UND, the North Dakota University System (NDUS), and the State Board of Higher Education (SBHE); 2) endorsement of a 3% merit increase pool for faculty and staff (especially important in view of the extraordinary efforts of our employees to deal with the impact of the pandemic); and 3) supplementation of the biennial funding recommended in the Governor’s Executive Budget to allow the School to continue to carry out its important programs and activities that have been so successful, especially since the implementation of the Healthcare Workforce Initiative.

The next important testimony will occur after bills “cross-over” from one chamber to the other on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. Following a brief recess, we will again be testifying sometime in March, but this time in front of the House Appropriations Committee – Education and Environment Division. The date for that testimony has not yet been set.

We won’t know the final outcome of the budget process until May, since after the Legislature completes its work in April, we then need to await finalization of the funding bill through the signature of the Governor and subsequent approval by the SBHE and NDUS. I do not anticipate that a lot of questions will be raised about our proposed funding since we are not requesting any additional funding for new programs, buildings or additional personnel (faculty or staff). On the other hand, the School’s amount of appropriated biennial funding – currently almost $65M – is the third largest in the entire NDUS behind only UND and NDSU, so there may be some questions from legislators as to how we use the people’s money. Those questions usually are pretty easy to answer as we are able to highlight the truly remarkable growth that has occurred in our educational, research, and service programs over the past decade, thanks to the dedicated and tireless efforts of our faculty, staff, and students. Their accomplishments are even more remarkable given the additional challenges that the pandemic presented over the past 10 months. As I indicated above, the UND SMHS is off to a good start in 2021 and I’m excited about the opportunities in the coming year. All best wishes from Susan and me for a healthy, happy and productive New Year.

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences