Blunt recommends $31.2 million for Ellis Fischel Cancer Center

Wednesday, December 5, 2007 | 9:55 p.m. CST; updated 11:33 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — If the $31.2 million in funding proposed Wednesday by Gov. Matt Blunt is approved, the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center would be one step closer to constructing a new facility next to University Hospital.

The funding is part of Blunt’s supplemental budget recommendation, which still needs to be approved by the state legislature.

The money for Ellis Fischel would come from the proceeds of the sale of Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority assets, which are earmarked for higher education building projects.

The cancer center has been located on Business Loop for nearly 70 years and partnered with the MU Health Sciences Center in 1990. It is the only Missouri hospital dedicated primarily to cancer.

According to a news release from the governor’s office, the money would be used to construct a new facility, increase patient capacity and attempt to meet requirements to be designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute. An additional $21 million would be needed to fund the facility.

The center would attempt to become a Comprehensive Cancer Center, director Bill Caldwell said. To qualify, Ellis Fischel must demonstrate expertise in laboratory, clinical and behavioral and population-based research. It would also have to undergo an extensive application process.

There are 39 such centers nationwide which, according to the National Cancer Institute, are funded through federal and non-federal sources.

Research at other facilities is mostly clinical, but some conduct forms of stem cell research, which could reopen problems seen last year in the Missouri legislature.

The Ellis Fischel money was removed from the project list in March after getting caught in the barbs flying over the sale of MOHELA’s assets and whether stem cell research would be conducted in buildings financed by the sale.

Senate Republicans removed the funds for the cancer center because of ongoing opposition to the sale by Democrats, led by Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia. Graham opposed the sale because he didn’t want legislators to restrict research in the buildings and he blamed Republican fears of stem cell research.

“They didn’t want to give authority for any type of research until they could remove that research from the constitution,” said Ted Farnen, Graham’s chief of staff. “No one was saying, ‘We want to build Ellis Fischel for stem-cell research,’ but they were worried at some point it might be used for stem cell research.”

Legislation and ballot language have been filed to revoke the constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2006 to protect stem cell research in the state.

Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, said there would be no problem with passing Blunt’s supplemental budget unless legislators try to restrict stem cell research. This could create the same problems that led to the cancer center’s funding cut in March.

“I’m just hoping we can bring it through very clean without any stem cell language,” Robb said.

Robb said his wife survived cancer because of treatment she received at Ellis Fischel, and his first priority will be finding the additional $21 million needed for the new building.

When the MOHELA sale was first introduced by Blunt in 2005, MU was slated to receive $175 million, the largest amount in the state. When the sale was finally approved in May, it contained no funding for projects on campus, though some auxiliary programs received money.

On Wednesday, Graham’s office accused the governor of playing election-year politics in announcing support for Ellis Fischel after the funding was removed by Republican Senate leaders during the last legislative session.

“It’s an election year, to put it bluntly, you either support it or not,” Farnen said. “A few months ago they did not, and now they do.”

But the governor’s spokeswoman, Jessica Robinson, said the governor never stopped supporting Ellis Fischel.

Blunt has repeatedly mentioned his willingness to reinstate the cancer center project since signing off on the asset sale. The supplemental budget also added back $15 million for a pharmacy and nursing building already under construction at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“It’s good news, but it’s good news that could have come a lot earlier,” Farnen said. “It’s just kind of making up for what these people could have done months ago.”

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