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Fund Roswell Park; Cancer hospital is essential to WNY, shouldn't face an impossible deadline

Albany is not yet listening. Despite the obvious truth that an institution as complex and essential as Roswell Park Cancer Institute needs more than two years to fundamentally change its funding structure, officials from within the Cuomo administration keep insisting it's reasonable, as though just saying it would make it so. It's not. The goal may be sensible, but the time frame is ridiculous.

The most recent denial of reality came from the state's Health Commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, who once performed research at Roswell Park. Speaking to lawmakers at a state budget hearing, Shah said that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's commitment to end state funding in two years "is aggressive, but realistic." It certainly is the former, but it is realistic only to those who have no concern about what the loss of the hospital would mean to its patients and to the economy of the region, as a whole.

Given the state's stressful financial circumstances, it is not surprising that Cuomo wants to eliminate the $102 million annually it sends to Roswell Park. Albany absolutely should be looking for avenues to reduce its spending. Even leaders of the hospital might find it advantageous to be free from the annual funding dance. It's not a terrible idea.

But the change has to occur responsibly and it is flatly irresponsible to announce that so drastic a change -- accounting for 14 percent of the hospital's total revenues -- will occur in just two years. Two examples:

In December, the institute's genome project was awarded $5.1 million in state economic development funding for its plan to develop a more robust approach to personalized medicine. The elimination of state funding for the hospital would hurt its standing in the research community by adding an element of unpredictability to its future. That unpredictability makes it more difficult to attract the type of top-flight researchers required by the genome project.

Also, the hospital's next competitive application to be designated as a comprehensive cancer center is due next spring. Loss of state funding -- likely precipitating loss of critical staff and demonstrating diminishing financial support -- would almost certainly harm that application to the National Cancer Institute.

Diminishing Roswell Park diminishes Western New York. The hospital is a key element in the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which holds the promise of restoring some of the region's economic vitality. And institute officials say that every dollar of state aid pumps $5 into the community.

A year ago Cuomo proposed slashing Roswell Park funding by $32.8 million. That cut was softened to about $25 million, still a large number but at least manageable. In much the same way, the governor's plan to end funding in two years must spread the pain out over several years.

It seems clear that, even if the state changes its time frame -- which it must -- this train is coming down the track. That means that leaders of the hospital need to begin planning now for a different future. It needs partners and a more collaborative approach to pursuing its mission than it has had to adopt in the past. This will be a big change and in many respects, no doubt, a difficult one.

Still, that's what the future holds, not just for Roswell Park but for all who rely on state funding. Change is coming. It needs to take more than two years, but the time to start preparing is now.