Late last year, the troubled future of the University of Texas — Medical Branch was Galveston's direst long-term threat. Ike slammed the medical school and hospital complex to the tune of $710 million in damages. The 550-bed John Sealy Hospital, UTMB's main source of income, was closed by the storm, as was the only level-one trauma center on the Island. When John Sealy reopened, the regents planned to have it do so as a 200-bed hospital. Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas wondered aloud if the 200-bed John Sealy Hospital would be big enough to support having a medical school attached to it.
Last November, the complex was said to be losing $40 million each month and UTMB President David Callender declared the school financially exigent, thus giving him something akin to emergency powers. The UT Board of Regents subsequently approved the layoffs of more than 3,500 UTMB staff and employees — almost one-third of the entire workforce, but before the job cuts ended, "only" 2,500 were laid off.
(A declaration of financial exigency allows for the firing of tenured professors, and in the case of UTMB, many were. The American Association of University Professors has dispatched an investigative committee to the island to determine if the regents used Ike as a handy excuse to cull the herd of professorial fat cats. The investigation is ongoing.)
Many observers believed that the regents were secretly planning to move UTMB off the island permanently, and somewhat noncommittal assurances to the contrary from the UT regents in the months immediately following Ike did little to dissuade the pessimists.
Given the bad session it had, it's somewhat of a surprise that the Texas Legislature was able to rise to the occasion. Republican Speaker of the House Joe Straus reached across the aisle to appoint Galveston Democrat Craig Eiland as Speaker Pro Tempore, the second most powerful position in the House. Eiland and Friendswood Republican Larry Taylor were also appointed to several powerful committees, giving both of them ample opportunities to twist arms and conduct backroom deals to save UTMB. And Eiland was able to pull it off: Despite the inertia of this past session, which bogged down maddeningly over the voter-identification issue, Eiland was able to bring home $150 million in direct funds for UTMB, which are earmarked for a hospital tower that would permanently increase John Sealy's capacity to pre-Ike levels of 550 beds. FEMA claims should contribute $450 million more, while private insurance is expected to chip in around $67 million.
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While a few hurdles remain before the cranes start moving, the hardest work is done. The trauma center that Ike ravaged reopened on August 1, and UTMB is now hiring again. "There's a huge campaign to hire back 100 nurses," says Betty Massey, head of the Galveston Long Term Recovery Committee. "They are very earnestly trying to hire back people they had to [lay off] in the fall, but many of the people who they laid off who were in high-demand fields have moved on to better jobs elsewhere."