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State budget cuts mean fewer flights, clinics for KU doctors

By Sam Zeff, HEARTLAND HEALTH MONITOR | July 06, 2016

State budget cuts mean fewer flights, clinics for KU doctors
Photo by Sam Zeff/KCUR KU Medical Center Spine surgeon Dr. Doug Burton, right, and physician assistant Troy Stucker get ready to board a King Air after seeing 50 patients in Hutchinson.

For almost 40 years, doctors from the University of Kansas Medical Center have been flying across 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 Medical Center staffers pile into a twin-engine King Air at the Downtown Kansas City Airport.

Cramped but certainly comfortable, they’re about to take off for 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.

Fewer trips, more patients

Burton said he’s been flying across Kansas for 16 years but in the last five years, mostly due to state budget reductions, the medical center has cut its flights by 60 percent.

Patients, he says, feel it the most. “Ultimately it decreased their access,” Burton said. “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.”

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.

Photo by Sam Zeff/KCUR KU Medical Center doctors have been offering health clinics in Hutchinson for decades.

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A few years ago, Burton said, 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 at the Hutchinson Clinic, a sprawling campus on the eastern edge of town.

Among them is 39-year-old Justin Mitchell from Hutchinson, who 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 said.

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

Mitchell said the clinic in Hutchinson means he doesn’t have to suffer through a seven-hour round-trip car ride to the medical center in Kansas City, Kan.

“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,” he said.

Highly specialized KU 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 the clinic for pain management, Amie Bauer from Lindsborg said 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 said.

Financial pressures

Photo by Sam Zeff/KCUR Doctors from KU Medical Center have been offering clinics across the state since the late 1970s. This is one of the original planes KU doctors used.

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While budget cuts from the state have taken the biggest bite out of the medical center’s clinic flights, there are other pressures.

Executive Vice Chancellor Doug Girod said less federal money has hurt and the cost of flying has gone up. But state support for KU Medical Center has been cut by 14 percent in the last 10 years, he said.

To make ends meet, Girod has not only cut back on medical center flights but also hasclosed 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,” he said. 

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,” he said.

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 medical center programs, may continue to contract.

— Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR