Congressional approval of two key funding measures last week opened the door for a proposed all-hazards response center — known as the NeXT Project — at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, UNMC’s chancellor says.
Dr. Jeffrey Gold said sections of both the federal appropriations bill and the defense funding act advance the process of creating facilities such as the one UNMC has proposed.
UNMC and clinical partner Nebraska Medicine announced plans in 2019 for a $2.6 billion facility, dubbed Project NeXT, that could be quickly repurposed from serving local patients to caring for victims of pandemics or natural disasters.
The Nebraska Legislature last year pledged to devote $300 million in state funds toward the project if the federal government and private donors contributed $1.3 billion.
While such projects have been outlined previously, the defense funding measure directs it in law for the first time and instructs the Defense Department to lay out the scope and identify “not fewer than two” sites for the first pilot projects by March 31. That sets the stage for funding of the projects in the 2022 defense funding bill.
“This is a major step forward for us,” Gold said.
Gold acknowledged that other sites will compete for the dollars. But UNMC meets the eligibility criteria outlined in the measures.
The federal spending bill calls on defense officials to prioritize “locations that would facilitate public-private partnerships with academic medical centers of institutions of higher education, hospitals, and other entities with facilities that have an established history of providing clinical care, treatment, training, and research” involving infectious diseases and other threats.
Not only does UNMC have such experience, it’s also near Offutt Air Force Base and the U.S. Strategic Command, which works closely with the university on various projects.
In addition, Omaha has a history of successful public-private partnerships, including the one that led to the $86 million expansion of the Omaha VA Medical Center.
“I do believe UNMC is extremely well-prepared to be eligible,” Gold said, “and given the work we’ve done with the state and the private sector, we’re as well-prepared ... to be one of the first-generation pilots.”
Gold credited members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation for their efforts in managing the appropriations and authorization process for the project.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., led the effort on the House Appropriations Committee, which controls federal spending. Fortenberry called the approval a “big win.”
The appropriations bill includes $15 million for the Department of Defense to advance the project, technically known as the National Disaster Medical System medical surge pilot program.
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon and U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, both Nebraska Republicans, serve on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, respectively. Those committees are responsible for writing the annual National Defense Authorization Act.
“The past year has underscored the need for our nation to be better prepared,” Bacon said in a statement, “whether it’s for another pandemic, a biological attack or any other national medical emergency. The Pentagon recognizes the cutting-edge and innovative work being done at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and I am confident UNMC will play a significant role in the federal government’s response strategy.”
Fischer said the language she helped include in both measures will make important improvements to the federal response to future health emergencies.
“UNMC has some of the world’s best talent when it comes to emerging health care challenges and medical disasters, and I am confident they will offer a compelling case for inclusion in this pilot program,” Fischer said in a statement.
Gold also credited U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., for bringing federal defense and health department officials together. Sasse served as a Health and Human Services assistant secretary under President George W. Bush.
“We worked hard for this because the team at UNMC has never backed down during the pandemic,” Sasse said in a statement. “They have proven their world-class expertise and were a nationwide leader at the beginning of the pandemic.”
In early February, the medical center assisted the federal government in an operation that housed 57 Americans who were brought back from China at the Nebraska National Guard’s Camp Ashland. The medical center then monitored 15 Americans evacuated from a virus-stricken cruise ship at the National Quarantine Unit on the UNMC campus. Several people who became ill were cared for in the separate Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, where three Ebola patients were treated in 2014.