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The federal portion of massive UNMC project is a big ask — and Nebraska's not the only one asking

The federal portion of massive UNMC project is a big ask — and Nebraska's not the only one asking

WASHINGTON — The NExT Project represents a towering, ambitious vision for the future of the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

That vision also comes with a towering, ambitious price tag of $2.6 billion.

Backers of the proposed all-hazard response facility are seeking to line up hundreds of millions in state dollars to be matched by private donations and local contributions, but the project would rely on the federal government for about half its construction cost, and landing such a sum from Uncle Sam is no simple task.

However, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., says the state’s congressional delegation has experience working in a bipartisan fashion to support such big endeavors.

Consider the millions in federal money secured for UNMC facilities and training related to Ebola and other highly infectious diseases. Or the groundbreaking public-private partnership, blessed by Congress, that is responsible for an expansion of Omaha’s VA Medical Center. A new U.S. Strategic Command headquarters just opened at Offutt Air Force Base.

“Same play, same play,” Fortenberry said of the NExT Project. “We’re going to run the same play. It’s very predictable.”

Fortenberry holds a key seat on the House Appropriations Committee, which controls the federal purse strings.

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Meanwhile, Rep. Don Bacon and Sen. Deb Fischer, both Nebraska Republicans, serve on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

Those panels are responsible for writing the annual National Defense Authorization Act.

The NExT Project is rooted in a section of the most recent NDAA, language that establishes a pilot project to explore public-private solutions to what UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey Gold says is a top priority both for the federal government and the American people.

Gold said studies show the country has inadequate “surge capacity” for responding to natural disasters, power plant meltdowns, chemical spills and other large-scale hazards. Imagine waves of wounded or sick that would come from nuclear fallout or a fast-moving epidemic. Recent headlines about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak underscore the potential for a sudden influx of patients.

“We are literally one airplane flight away from the spread of some highly communicable disease,” Gold said.

That’s why he’s pitching the new response facility that would sit on the medical center campus and include about 1,200 beds. To meet the needs of the community, traditional hospital patients would use much of that bed space, but a large portion would be available in the event of a large emergency involving serious burns, chemical injuries or radiation exposure.

“There’s no burn unit in the country currently that could deal with 600 patients, but we would have to have the staff and the supplies in order to handle that,” Gold said.

In addition to fulfilling national and local health needs, the project would bring a massive economic boost. And Gold says Omaha has a strong argument for being the site selected for such a facility.

There’s the proximity of Offutt and StratCom, which works closely with the university on a host of priorities, and the local history of successful public-private partnerships.

The construction cost wasn’t plucked out of the air, Gold stressed. Architectural and engineering firms have worked through estimates and the resulting numbers are on par with other similar large-scale university hospital projects around the country, he said.

Gold and other top UNMC officials have been traveling to Washington regularly in recent months for meetings with Capitol Hill lawmakers, as well as officials at the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services. Nebraska lawmakers have been cautiously upbeat about the project’s prospects.

“Our goal is to make this the hub of the Midwest for biodefense,” Bacon said.

Several years ago, UNMC was awarded $19.8 million in federal money to develop a new training, simulation and quarantine center after its partner, the Nebraska Medical Center, was one of a small number of U.S. hospitals to care for Ebola patients during the 2014-2015 outbreak.

And the $86 million expansion of the VA Medical Center includes $56 million in federal money, with Heritage Services responsible for raising the remaining $30 million.

While the NExT project is orders of magnitude larger than those projects, the need is also much greater, Fortenberry said.

Still, no one should be looking for bulldozers to start rolling anytime soon.

“This is just in the realm of possibility at the moment, so I don’t want to create an unrealistic expectation,” Fortenberry said, then leaned over to speak closely and directly into a reporter’s digital recorder. “I don’t want to create an unrealistic expectation.”

Fischer noted that while she believes Nebraska is the best location for the project, other states will be pursuing it as well.

“This is a really big lift, and obviously it’s going to be very competitive,” Fischer said. “We’re going to work hard as a delegation to sell the good things we have in the state of Nebraska.”

A look back at the Nebraska Medical Center unit’s Ebola patients

Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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Reporter - Politics/Washington D.C.

Joseph Morton is The World-Herald Washington Bureau Chief. Morton joined The World-Herald in 1999 and has been reporting from Washington for the newspaper since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @MortonOWH.

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