Tommy taps rich vein for COVID Funds

There he goes again. Tommy Thompson, former governor and now interim president of the University of Wisconsin System, is showing the state once again how leaders lead.

He had already turned the powerful University of Wisconsin loose on statewide testing for the coronavirus. He used the 26 UW campuses to get it rolling.

Then he addressed the shortage of nurses to deal with the pandemic by asking the UW campuses to send their seniors in nursing school to the front lines of the battle against the deadly virus.

Then, last week he freed up $5 million from the Blue Cross Endowment to the University of Wisconsin Madison for nursing education. That money will probably be used to pay the nursing seniors during their internships on the front lines.

The students will also earn credits and gain tremendous experience. They are sort of like the young people who became “90-day wonders” in WWII – a quick infusion of new officers into our war fighting ranks. (The COVID fight is a war, and Madison leaders should be bringing a wartime sense of urgency to the fight.)

The Blue Cross money, originally $610 million, has been around for 20 years, half at Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) and half at UW-Madison. UW-Milwaukee got zip.

UW has funded a wide variety of modest public health initiatives without a lot of visible or measurable impact. There was no overall cohering plan. Or metrics.

After many millions of disbursements, there is still almost $800 million left between the two schools. If ever there were a time to use about $40 million per year of its earnings to fight the good fight, now is the time.

A solid argument can be made that Thompson should be enabled to dig deeply into the accumulated UW earnings and even into the principal. Given the depth and devastation of this crisis to public health and the economy, what better use could be made of the funds?

The deans of the two medical schools in the state made a case recently for their widely distributed use of the funds. The sprinkled UW grants include public advocacy for better health, a shared bike riding program in Wisconsin Rapids, law school programs in Madison and Racine, housing programs in Milwaukee and organic gardening education.

At a minimum, the revelations about the limited impact of the Blue Cross money should trigger several responses:
• An audit of the use of the money over the last 20 years.
• A performance analysis of the effectiveness of the Blue Cross public health donations—the biggest single gift to higher education in the history of the state.

The UW Board of Regents has never done so.

The MCW has recently used $4.8 million for COVID rapid responses grants; UW Health has committed $2.9 million. Those are tepid initiatives compared to the magnitude of the threat and damage to the Wisconsin populace.

Thompson has started the ball rolling toward a more immediate and productive use of that enormous gift. Knowing him, he will be asking for a larger chunk of those funds to directly address the pandemic in Wisconsin.

When Thompson was governor, Wisconsin ranked amount among the best of the 50 states in national public health rankings. It has dropped sharply in the intervening years to as low as 33rd. We have the third highest spread of the coronavirus.

Almost every measure of public health has dropped since Thompson left office—infant mortality from a 22nd ranking to 34th; lack of health insurance from 2nd best to 8th; low birth weight 12th down to 21st; and teen births from 8th down to 11th.

The numbers speak for themselves and a more aggressive use of the Blue Cross money.

The state desperately needs more ammunition and better targeting in the COVID fight. There is a prominent place for more Blue Cross money in the war.

Thompson’s most obvious next move for the use of the funds is the rollout of vaccinations across the state in the coming months. In the case of the UW and its 26 campuses, they have the manpower and they have the money through the Blue Cross funds.

Thompson, the four-term governor from upstate, thoroughly believes in the once hallowed “Wisconsin Idea” that the boundaries of UW are the boundaries of the state. That concept got lost over the last 20 years as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that magnificent flagship, withdrew to its own boundaries in Madison.

Getting back to its mission of serving the whole state will be a refreshing return to its shining history and tradition. The timing couldn’t be more right.

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