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Health

State Budget Cuts Mean Fewer Flights, Fewer Clinics For KU Medical Center Doctors

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Sam Zeff
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KCUR 89.3

Here’s something you probably didn’t know about the University of Kansas Medical Center: For almost 40 years KU doctors have been flying around the state to bring their expertise to small towns.

But in another unintended consequence, budget cuts in Kansas have drastically cut back this service.

About 6:45 a.m. on an already steamy June morning, seven KU Med staffers pile on a twin-engine King Air at the Downtown Kansas City Airport.

Cramped but certainly comfortable, they're about to take off on a 40 minute flight to Hutchinson.

On the flight is Dr. Doug Burton, an orthopedic spine surgeon, and his physician assistant, Troy Stucker.

Also along is Dr. Carol Lindsley, one of the few pediatric rheumatologist in the area.

Burton says he’s been flying around Kansas for 16 years but in the last five years, mostly due to state budget reductions, the Med Center has cut back its flights by 60 percent.

Patients, he says, feel it the most."Ultimately it decreased their access," says Burton. "We try to make up some of the difference by increasing the number of patients we see in clinic. There wasn’t a lot of leeway on that end, we were already pretty full. "

Sam Zeff
Credit KCUR 89.3
KU Medical Center doctors have been holding clinics in Hutchinson for decades.

Pretty full is an understatement. Since flights have been cut, the number of patients Burton and other doctors see on each trip has dramatically increased.

A few years ago, Burton says, he would see about 35 people at an out-of-town clinic.

Now, it’s almost 50.

By 8:30 a.m., Burton is seeing patients in the Hutchinson Clinic, a sprawling campus on the eastern edge of town.

Among them is 39-year-old Justin Mitchell from Hutchinson, who says he suffers from a degenerative disc disease.

Burton operated on him last April.

"If you fight pain every day you need to know that somebody cares and is going to give you the help you need," Mitchell says.

As clinic flights have been cut, some patients find other providers, others are forced to drive to Kansas City and still others just don't get seen.

Mitchell says the clinic in Hutchinson means he doesn't have to suffer through a seven hour round trip car ride to KU Medical Center. "When you finally find that medical center or that doctor that cares enough to help and because of state funding cuts it limits your availability to them, it impacts a lot of people."

You should think of these flights as an extension service. Highly specialized doctors fly to Hays, Garden City, Pittsburg and other small cities to deliver care that is usually only available at big city hospitals.

While Mitchell needs these clinics for pain management, Amie Bauer from Lindsborg says it’s about time management for her 12 year old daughter who has juvenile arthritis.

"When they’re in school, she’s missing two hours of schools to come 35 minutes. If we had to go to KU Med in Kansas City she could be missing an entire day of school," she says.

While budget cuts from the state have taken the biggest bite out of the Med Center clinic flights, there are other pressures.

KU Medical Center
No one at the KU Medical Center is exactly sure when its doctors started flying around Kansas. But it's at least since the late 1970s. This is one of the original planes KU doctors used.

Executive Vice Chancellor Doug Girod says less federal money has hurt and the cost of flying has gone up.

But state support for the entire Med Center has been cut by 14 percent in the last ten years, he says.

To make ends meet, Girod has not only cut back on flights for KU Med but has also closed a continuing education program in Garden City and laid off maintenance  staff.

And while technology like telemedicine helps, Girod, himself a surgeon, knows nothing replaces seeing patients in person. "From the personal perspective, certainly face-to-face is preferable for most people." 

Spine surgeon Doug Burton says finding ways to bring medical expertise to the entire state is a long-standing mission of KU Medical Center. "As a physician at the Medical Center, it’s my own mission as well. That I have an obligation to take care of the citizens of the state of Kansas."

Higher education in Kansas has taken a $36 million dollar hit over the last year, and tax revenues suggest the budget isn’t getting healthier soon.

Which means these flights, as well as other programs at the Med Center, may continue to contract.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

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