The House Appropriations committee on Monday passed a bill that would award the University of Mississippi Medical Center up to $4 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to establish a burn center.
UMMC officials have said UMMC is a natural fit for a burn center and that the hospital’s status as a Level 1 trauma center puts them in the position to care for these patients.
It’s unclear how the hospital arrived at the $4 million figure. UMMC did not respond to a request for that information.
Mississippi Today submitted a public records request to the Mississippi Department of Health for UMMC’s application for burn center designation, but the department said it could not produce the records because the application contains “trade secrets or confidential information or commercial or financial information.”
Mississippi Today asked if the application could be redacted to exclude any such information but has not received a response as of Tuesday. UMMC did not respond to a request for comment about the status of its application.
Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs, has previously said the hospital has “the necessary infrastructure in place” but will need to make additional hires, including around 30 nurses trained specifically in burn care.
“That won’t be immediately. Over time, it will grow,” said Jones.
He also said they will not have to add additional beds to accommodate running a burn center. Currently, burn patients are being treated on a regular unit in the hospital – but it’s unclear exactly how many and what level of severity.
Jones and other officials have publicly stated the hospital is currently treating pediatric burn patients. But according to an internal email sent in early February and obtained by Mississippi Today, UMMC is transferring out: patients with burns greater than 20% of total body surface area; inhalational injury; electric burns; burn lesions to face, hands, feet, genitals; and, finally, children.
Another bill that would award Baptist Medical Center $12 million to establish a burn center under the former Merit Health Central burn center medical director, Dr. Derek Culnan, is still alive but has not passed out of committee. If it does not pass out of the House by tomorrow’s deadline, the bill, authored by Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, will die.
A request for comment from Gunn was not immediately returned Tuesday morning.
Officials with Baptist said they have still not submitted the application for burn center designation to the Mississippi Department of Health as of Tuesday.
Culnan, the former medical director for the now-closed burn center at Merit Health Central, said Tuesday he chose to stay in Mississippi after the center closed and bring a team of providers, therapists and nurses who specialize in burn care to Baptist.
“We hope that the state will fund the build out of a burn ICU and OR suite at Baptist to alleviate the burdened trauma capacity in our state for all our people,” said Culnan, a fellowship-trained burn surgeon. “I have cared for these patients my entire professional life, and I am not willing to fail them.”
The Senate recently debated a bill that would allow amendments to a law that previously authorized UMMC to establish a burn center.
The law was established after the burn center in Greenville closed in 2005, and state lawmakers approached then-vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center Dr. Dan Jones about establishing a burn center at UMMC. Jones told Mississippi Today he asked lawmakers for a yearly commitment to help UMMC run the program, but lawmakers only offered one-time money.
UMMC walked away, citing financial constraints, but lawmakers nevertheless passed a bill in 2007, sans funding, saying the university “shall” create the Mississippi Burn Center.
Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, wanted to strike the law that said if Mississippi does not have a designated burn center, UMMC “shall” take on that responsibility. He wanted to remove the language to allow others to compete.
He also expressed concern about future funding commitments from the Legislature if UMMC were to establish a burn center.
“If any other center does it (the burn center), the state of Mississippi is not responsible for any other operating costs after the initial appropriation. With UMMC, any operating costs that might be needed, the state would be responsible,” Polk said.
UMMC is currently $15 million in the hole for the first six months of the fiscal year, according to a presentation made by Chief Financial Officer Nelson Weichold last week. The hospital’s amount of “days cash on hand,” or how long the hospital could sustain its operations using only the cash it has, has declined from around 135 days in January of 2022 to 84 days now.
The UMMC bill will now go to the full House for a vote.
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