A developing partnership between Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, the University of Maine and the University of Vermont College of Medicine aims to bring aspiring doctors to regional hospitals beginning in 2011 for their third and fourth years of medical school.
A similar program at Maine Medical Center in Portland, in partnership with Tufts University Medical School in Boston, is already interviewing students in preparation for enrolling its first class later this year.
The two new medical school programs, along with the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, are among a number of health care concerns in line for Maine’s share of federal economic stimulus funds. Gov. John Baldacci announced the planned allocations in his annual State of the State ad-dress Tuesday night, saying the one-time federal funding not only will help improve health care in Maine but also will aid the state’s economic recovery.
The governor proposes spending $3.5 million in the form of scholarships for Maine students who attend medical school in Maine.
Michelle Hood, president and CEO of Brewer-based EMHS, said Wednesday that plans to expand existing opportunities for medical school students have been under discussion for more than a year.
Currently, third-year students from the University of New England, Tufts, the University of Vermont and other medical schools spend six to 12 weeks at Eastern Maine Medical Center in short, specialized clinical rotations.
The new partnership seeks to establish a longer, stronger affiliation with students from the University of Vermont, placing them at hospitals and other health care sites throughout the northern Maine region and encouraging them to make use of research facilities at UMaine, the Maine Institute of Human Genetics and Health and The Jackson Laboratory.
“This program intends to increase the time [students] spend here to their entire third year, then moving gradually to include the fourth year,” Hood said. The program will start small with perhaps only a dozen students in the inaugural class. Many details remain to be worked out, Hood stressed, including developing a compre-hensive curriculum, student housing and faculty arrangements.
But the payback is the likelihood of more Maine students choosing to enter the medical field and more young doctors staying in the area to practice.
“Research shows that doctors tend to settle near the hospitals where they complete their training,” Baldacci said in his address Tuesday night. “And I know that, given the chance, young doctors will stay in Maine.”
It’s estimated that the federal dollars, in combination with matching philanthropic funds raised by the hospitals, could help offset tuition by as much as 50 percent.
Dr. Peter Bates, chief medical officer at Maine Medical Center and the interim dean of the Maine Medical Center Tufts Medical School, said the Maine Medical Center program expects to enroll 36 students this year.
“Twenty of those slots are reserved for Maine students,” Bates said Wednesday. Students accepted into the four-year program will spend much of the first two years in Boston, but will accomplish the clinical requirements of their third and fourth years in Maine. The program will have a focus on developing primary care physi-cians to practice in underserved rural areas — “a critical need in Maine,” Bates said.
Baldacci also plans to use stimulus funds to pay Maine hospitals a significant portion of the money they are owed by the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare. Unpaid claims dating back to 2005 total almost $423 million.
Maine will use the stimulus funds as the state’s contribution and draw down matching dollars from the federal Medicaid program to pay the hospitals.
Eastern Maine Medical Center is owed $76.5 million, the most of any hospital, and the seven hospitals in the EMHS system are owed a total of approximately $117 million, Hood said.
Assuming Baldacci makes good on his plan, Hood said, the funding will allow EMHS hospitals to pay off loans, invest in pension plans and move forward cautiously with some planned construction projects.
Other Maine-based health care projects slated for support with the federal funds include extending health insurance benefits for laid-off workers, improving the management of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, expanding health information technology and a proposal to stabilize the state’s DirigoChoice health insurance plan.