BeHealthySpringfield

Cancer institute to open this summer -- two years late


BY DEAN OLSEN
THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER
Published March 04, 2010 @ 7:36 a.m.

 

With $600,000 that Gov. Pat Quinn has decided to allocate from the state's already tight budget, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine officials said Wednesday they will open the SimmonsCooper Cancer Institute this summer - almost two years after the high-profile building was completed.

SIU officials recently signed an agreement to receive the money, and Quinn spokeswoman Kelly Kraft said Quinn administration officials will complete the allocation process in the next few days.

The $600,000 will come from $3.46 billion in "lump sums" controlled by Quinn and approved by the Illinois General Assembly last year as part of the budgeting process, she said.

"He's committed to SimmonsCooper - he really is," Kraft said of the governor. "He believes in what SimmonsCooper does."

Cancer institute director Dr. K. Thomas Robbins said the governor promised in private discussions with SIU officials several months ago that he would find additional state money so SimmonsCooper could open.

No money to open

The building at 315 W. Carpenter St. has been shuttered since September 2008 because the state lacked the money to heat, light, cool and maintain the three-story structure.

SIU staff members will begin to move into the building later this month. Doctors hope to start serving patients there by early summer, Robbins said.

The first state dollars to build SimmonsCooper were appropriated by the administration of former Gov. George Ryan in 2001.

Many of the medical school's multi-specialty cancer clinics, now based in buildings at St. John's Hospital and Memorial Medical Center, will move to the new building. Clinical trials and outreach services also will be based at SimmonsCooper.

About a dozen SIU doctors and 30 support workers will be housed in the building, and other doctors will see patients there, as well. A handful of maintenance and office workers may be hired as a result of the building's opening, cancer institute spokeswoman Cindy Davidsmeyer said.

The building was constructed with $15.5 million in state funds, in addition to $6 million in borrowing by SIU that is being paid off with donations and revenues generated by SIU physicians.

$1 million annually

Almost $1 million a year is needed to maintain the new building, but because of the state's ongoing budget problems, that money wasn't available when the facility was completed.

The East Alton-based SimmonsCooper law firm has pledged $10.2 million toward programs at the cancer institute, but Robbins said SIU didn't want to tap the principal or interest for basic operating costs.

The state budget for fiscal 2009 included $250,000 to open the building in summer 2009. But with little hope for more funding, SIU used the appropriation to keep the building mothballed. SIU officials recently learned that $250,000 also was included in the fiscal 2010 budget, so the $600,000 addition - for a total of $850,000 - should let the building operate through June 2011, Robbins said.

Prospects for state funding beyond that remain uncertain, but Robbins said: "We're feeling like the building can no longer stay closed. We have to go into that building and start using it.

"It's very depressing to drive by that beautiful building and see it shut down," Robbins said. "It's demoralizing."

The state's budget problems haven't affected the $2.5 million SIU receives annually to help pay salaries of doctors and researchers affiliated with the cancer institute.

In addition to helping to attract more cancer specialists to Springfield, the opening of SimmonsCooper could make a case for sustained support from the state, he said.

"If you have a bright, shining program, it's going to be even harder to not find funds for it," he said.

Dean Olsen can be reached at 788-1543.

Timeline

  • 2000: The Illinois Board of Higher Education approves a proposal to create a cancer institute at Springfield's Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
  • 2001: Then-Gov. George Ryan sets aside $14.5 million to build a headquarters for the institute.
  • 2005: Construction begins on a three-story building designed by Hanson Professional Services of Springfield with consultation by BSA Life Structures of Chicago. However, the $21.5 million available for the building wasn't enough to finish the interior of the third floor. Efforts continue to raise $2.5 million for that purpose.
  • Late 2005: The East Alton-based SimmonsCooper law firm, which made a fortune suing U.S. companies for asbestos exposure, pledges $10.2 million in donations toward the cancer institute. The institute is the nation's only major medical center to bear the name of a law firm.
  • July 2008: A ribbon-cutting ceremony is held at the facility, but the budget crunch prevents the building from being occupied.
  • April 2009: A supplemental appropriation signed by Gov. Pat Quinn provides $250,000 in operations and maintenance money for the last portion of the fiscal year.
  • August 2009: SIU officials say the building will remain vacant after $1 million needed for operations and maintenance fails to make it into the state's fiscal 2010 budget.
  • March 3, 2010: SIU officials say they have signed an agreement that allows for a $600,000 appropriation to the medical school from "lump sums" under Gov. Pat Quinn's control. The money will be used to help SIU open the SimmonsCooper building by early summer.

Photo: The SimmonsCooper Cancer Institute -- T.J. Salsman/The State Journal-Register

On the Web

For more information about the SimmonsCooper Cancer Institute at SIU, go to www.siumed.edu/cancer.

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