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On state budget tour stop, governor thanks Augusta University for COVID efforts



AUGUSTA, Ga. – Augusta University’s fast pivot to devote medical resources toward battling COVID-19 proved crucial in Georgia’s fight against the pandemic, Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday.

Kemp appeared at Augusta Regional Airport on the last stop of his four-city tour marking his signing of the state’s fiscal year 2022 budget. He thanked AU President Brooks A. Keel for the school’s role in accelerating COVID-19 testing across Georgia, and the school’s commitment toward producing more physicians for parts of the state that need them most.

“They’ve been incredible how they’ve helped us,” Kemp told The Augusta Chronicle after his news conference. “Dr. Keel really mentioned a lot today of what they’ve done –everything from testing to making PPEs and obviously helping get the vaccine out. It’s really bringing the community together to do that, and it’s quite honestly what’s made us be able to weather this pandemic better than most.”

Keel said AU “gladly and eagerly accepted that challenge” from Kemp to expand COVID-19 testing statewide, and to date, AU has conducted more than 188,000 tests in its hospital lab alone.

“It’s been 422 days since the first COVID-19 case was reported here in our health system, and our front-line health care providers have been working day-in, day-out, 24 hours a day to fight against COVID,” Keel said.

Allocations for Augusta

Several budget allocations were aimed at expenditures unique to the Augusta area.

The state budgeted $28,974,714 in its continuation budget for the Medical College of Georgia’s graduate medical education and patient care. But House Bill 81 contained several new appropriations, including $5.2 million to match funds for the endowment gift for MCG’s new 3+ Program, which offers several career pathways allowing students to earn medical degrees in shorter time spans and to practice in rural Georgia communities.

“We have put more physicians in rural Georgia and we started the 3+ Program to want to help incentivize students to do just that,” Keel said. “We have a very large philanthropic gift from Peach State Health that we’re excited about, and this budget matches that gift and allows us to establish an over-$10 million endowment that’s going to provide tuition for those students who want to go practice in rural Georgia.”Other H.B. 81 increases included $1,627,793 for MCG operational funds, and a $100,000 increase to pursue a partnership with Clark Atlanta University for prostate cancer research.

MCG also received $241,529 in additional funds to expand a forensic pathology fellowship program in partnership with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and a $100,000 funding increase to expand that program’s physician loan forgiveness.

Augusta University received $428,000 from the state to manage debt service on a 20-year, $5 million general obligation bond paying for renovations to Christenberry Fieldhouse.

The fledgling Columbia County Judicial Circuit, whose authority is set to be enacted July 1, will receive from the state $1,375,425 to set up a district attorney’s office, $1,024,003 for a public defender’s office and a $25,000 grant to pay a judge to preside over its juvenile court.

The new circuit will splinter Columbia County from Richmond and Burke counties in the Augusta Judicial Circuit – a separation that is being challenged in a lawsuit filed April 28 by Evans attorney Willie Saunders.

The effort to bring a third Georgia War Veterans Cemetery to Augusta got a boost with $1 million from the state budget that will allow organizers to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Two other budget items combined will pay more than $1.2 million in debt service on general obligation bonds that are funding the construction of a 56-bed housing unit and an academic building at the Augusta Regional Youth Development Campus on Mike Padgett Highway.