Two universities that wanted to create ambitious new roles to help overcome the shortage of doctors and veterinarians won overwhelming support from the Kentucky House of Representatives on Thursday.

The House passed separate bills that would allow Murray State University to create a school of veterinary medicine and Eastern Kentucky University to offer medical degrees in osteopathic medicine.

The authorization bills now go to the Senate. Another key issue that must be resolved is whether the proposed academic programs will receive the state funding necessary to establish themselves. That could be decided next month when lawmakers discuss the final details of the state’s next two-year budget. The new programs would also have to get approval from the state Board of Postsecondary Education.

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The House action moved Murray State closer to achieving its long-held ambition of becoming the first school in Kentucky to offer doctoral-level veterinary degrees. A school in the state would be crucial to addressing a widespread shortage of veterinarians, especially in treating large animals, supporters said.

Kentucky has a large, diversified agricultural economy, but it lacks a “crucial component in our agricultural infrastructure: a veterinary school,” said Republican Rep. Richard Heath, the bill’s lead sponsor.

Bluegrass State has a long-standing partnership with Auburn University in Alabama that allows Kentucky students to be classified as in-state residents in Auburn’s veterinary program.

Members of the Kentucky House of Representatives are seen during discussion of a House bill in Frankfort, Kentucky, on Feb. 1, 2024. The House passed bills that would allow Murray State University to create a school of veterinary medicine and Eastern Kentucky University will offer medical degrees in osteopathic medicine on February 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

A veterinary medical school at Murray State could work in conjunction with the existing out-of-state partnership to supply the veterinarians needed to meet demand across Kentucky, supporters said.

Democratic Rep. Chad Aull said the question is not where to establish a veterinary school in the state but whether such a school should be developed. It could someday be seen as a financial hardship in tough fiscal times to have an in-state school and an out-of-state deal, he said.

“I really hope that when we enter an economic crisis eight or ten years from now, and we enter a recession and we face a challenging budget, that we don’t cut those spaces in Auburn because they are critical and vital to the health of our veterinary community,” said.

Murray State officials say reliance on out-of-state programs alone will not solve the veterinarian shortage.

“It’s a basic math problem,” Murray State President Bob Jackson said at a recent committee hearing. “There are not enough seats or seats in the veterinary schools that exist today to meet the growing demand for veterinarians in this country and in this state. Yes, we can buy more seats. But that will not solve the shortage problem that we are dealing with the present day.”

Meanwhile, the bill that would allow Eastern Kentucky to offer medical degrees for the practice of osteopathic medicine passed the House without any resistance.

Supporters pointed to the shortage of primary care doctors in Kentucky. The state’s three existing medical schools enrolled a total of 510 students last year out of more than 13,000 applicants, said House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade, the bill’s lead sponsor. The proposed Eastern Kentucky University College of Osteopathic Medicine would increase the pipeline of doctors practicing in the state, supporters said.

“We all know that rural Kentucky is struggling with access to health care and we have challenged our universities to find solutions,” Meade said. “And that’s what EKU is trying to do here: meet that challenge.”

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Republican Rep. Deanna Frazier Gordon, another lead sponsor of the bill, said the Eastern Kentucky program would help contribute to the health of Kentuckians, especially in areas that lack enough health care providers.

The university wants to play a role in overcoming the shortage of primary care physicians, especially in rural Kentucky, school President David McFaddin said at a recent legislative committee hearing.

“We are proud of this proposal,” he said. “We’re trying to address Kentucky’s needs. We’re leaning on our strengths and trying to differentiate ourselves as an institution.”

By Sam