Buffalo News Editorial: Restore funding for health program

Even in a year of a significant deficit, this cut doesn’t make sense. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed 2018-19 state budget would make it harder for minority students to become doctors, with unwanted consequences for them, for patients and for communities.

The total increase in funding sought for this and a related program is about $1.6 million. That’s not even a rounding error in a budget proposal of $168 billion. It will do almost nothing to make up for the projected deficit of $4.4 billion.

Lawmakers and the governor should restore this funding, if necessary by taking it out of education, which is vastly overfunded for the results it produces.

The main program offers a year’s mentoring for minority students with an interest in becoming doctors but lack the academic standing to enter medical school. The program, funded two years ago at $1.6 million, provides a stipend to students who are coached for a year. They are required to focus on their studies and are not allowed to hold down jobs. It works: Advocates of the program say 95 percent of those who enter the program move on to medical school.

The benefits are significant, and not just to the students who are able to enter an valuable profession. As an article in NEJM Catalyst notes, “Racial health disparities are associated with substantial annual economic losses nationally,” which included $35 billion in excess health care spending, $10 billion in lost productivity and nearly $200 billion in premature deaths.

Research shows that patients have better outcomes, and are more willing to discuss treatment plans when their doctors are of a similar race or ethnicity. And the benefits radiate beyond that, since the new doctors are required to practice for a time in underserved areas.

The current year’s budget already cut the program to $1.24 million from the previous year’s $1.6 million. The governor’s proposed spending plan would further drop funding to $995,000. Backers are asking the governor to restore funding to $1.6 million, which is still notably less than the program received at its maximum funding of $1.96 million.

That requests accounts for just over half what the Associated Medical Schools of New York are asking. The remaining $1 million is for restored and expanded funding of a scholarship program that helps some of these students afford medical school once they get there.

It’s true that Albany needs to restrain its budget. That is true every year in a state with a history of overspending. It is especially true this year. But spending cuts need to be based in part on what will be gained versus the economic cost of reduced support. In this case, the balance is off.

Lawmakers and the governor should restore this funding and find other ways to save $1.6 million.