The UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health has laid off all 60 employees from a nationally known eye research center after learning the center had run up a deficit of $4.6 million.

The Fundus Photograph Reading Center faces an uncertain future after its staff was told of the layoffs at an Oct. 14 meeting. Four of the 60 employees either retired or were reassigned, said Lisa Brunette, media relations director for UW Health.

Started in 1972, the center is responsible for assisting in research trials of treatments for macular degeneration and other retina diseases.

“There are plans to establish a smaller unit to provide services in a way that can be sustained financially,” Brunette said in an email about the future of Fundus. She didn’t elaborate.

Details were scarce about what led to the downfall of the once-thriving research center, an arm of the UW-Madison ophthalmology department that relied on a steady stream of research dollars from big pharmaceutical companies and government agencies doing clinical trials to test new treatments for retina diseases.

Fundus director Ronald Danis did not respond to the State Journal’s request, through a spokeswoman, for an interview. The newspaper on Thursday requested the center’s annual budget documents, but they had not been provided as of Friday.

Brunette said that in general the deficit grew due to loss of contracts that resulted in substantial decreases in the funding stream. The center still has 23 active studies underway and its lease in a Far West Side office park, which it moved into in 2010 at a cost of $53,582 a month, doesn’t expire until January 2015, Brunette said.

Medical school dean Robert Golden expressed frustration over the situation in an Oct. 21 meeting with laid-off Fundus employees.

The State Journal obtained a video recording of the meeting in which Golden apologized to staff.

“I know that a large number of very good people through no fault of theirs whatsoever are losing positions,” he said.

Golden said there were funding problems with Fundus for three years but he was not aware until recently they had grown to such “epic proportions,” noting that it, like other units, was responsible for balancing its books.

“It’s basically analogous to whoever was the credit card holder of the Fundus Center overspent, overspent, overspent (and) accumulated such a deficit that it finally, later than it should have, came to our attention,” he said. “I’m profoundly disappointed in those individuals who knew this was happening and didn’t bring it to our attention sooner.”

Laid-off Fundus employees declined comment, fearful that doing so would hurt future employment possibilities.

“I’m profoundly disappointed in those individuals who knew this was happening and didn’t bring it to our attention sooner.” — Medical school dean
Robert Golden
Outbrain