Behemoth project at UNMC campus could hinge on $300 million commitment from state (copy)

The University of Nebraska Medical Center campus. 

The federal government has decided to make a major investment to strengthen our country’s capability to deal with outbreaks of highly infectious diseases and other large-scale medical needs, and that move opens up an enormous economic development opportunity for Nebraska. It’s an opportunity, too, to boost Nebraska’s number of health care professionals and telehealth capabilities, with important benefits for all of the state.

The project, involving a 1,000- to 1,200-bed complex of medical high rises, would create major facilities at the University of Nebraska Medical Center to provide surge capacity for dealing with large-scale disaster response for military and civilian needs. The project, known as NExT, also would provide state-of-the-art instructional capability so the country will have an adequate network of trained health care professionals nationwide to respond to large-scale emergency needs. The new defense bill makes this goal a priority.

The current concern over the fast-spreading Wuhan coronavirus provides a good illustration of the kind of large-scale public health concerns that are the focus of this initiative.

Nebraska would see an estimated annual economic impact of $1.9 billion through 2030 from the project. That would include nearly 33,000 construction-related jobs and 8,700 permanent, high-paying jobs.

Once the project is fully operational by 2030, the estimated annual economic impact for Nebraska would top $1.3 billion.

The economic return on the initial investment would be tremendous: On a $2.6 billion investment by the federal government, UNMC, state and local governments and private donors, Nebraska would see a projected 10-year economic boost of $7.6 billion.

The expanded facilities would boost telehealth capabilities and increase Nebraska’s number of trained health care professionals, benefiting communities around the state.

Nebraska has a good shot at hosting this project, for many reasons. Above all, UNMC is a proven global leader in the treatment and medical training for highly infectious diseases. It’s a central player in national partnerships to address such illnesses.

UNMC and Nebraska Medicine are home to the biocontainment unit that has treated Ebola patients. UNMC stands out for its years of experience in providing large-scale training for such specialized medical care.

Plus, Omaha as a community commendably meets another key federal requirement: Omaha has a local philanthropic culture that enables successful large-scale public-private partnerships.

Our community can point to key examples of major private philanthropic support for local projects including the expansion of the VA Medical Center as well as the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center.

In addition, Offutt Air Force Base is close by, meeting the federal requirement for adequate airport and transport availability. Indeed, if Nebraska is awarded this project, it would provide strong assurance of Offutt’s long-term continuance.

Recent comments from Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs — the top medical officer over all military services for the Joint Chiefs of Staff — reflect well on UNMC’s reputation and Omaha. “The work that has occurred across the agencies in order to work with the Nebraska community does set a model that we can use in the future going forward,” Friedrichs said. He was addressing a U.S. House committee in a hearing on strengthening medical capabilities for large-scale disaster needs.

He added: “I think that the capability that’s been developed for Ebola, the partnership for the VA hospital, some of the cutting-edge research that’s being done there in Nebraska, is exactly the sort of work and collaboration that we need to move forward in the future.”

The Nebraska state government’s contribution would total $300 million, but the state would not have to provide that in a single sum. Instead, the state aims to make its contribution as a business incentive, contingent on the federal government’s final decision on the project, which isn’t expected for a good while.

Legislation for the state’s contribution is co-sponsored by 32 state senators — urban, rural, across lines of party and ideology. Such broad support makes clear how the project is expected to be a plus for all of Nebraska.

It’s vital that all key Nebraska players for this project — UNMC, members of Congress, government officials, private donors — step up energetically now to maximizes the state’s chances for landing this game-changing opportunity.

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