Medical school project has changed its focus

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Print this page by Veronica Garabelli

The Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission will meet in January to discuss whether it will continue funding for a Southwest Virginia health-care project that has changed its focus.

The commission provides money to formerly tobacco-dependent communities to promote economic development. In 2009, it approved a $25 million grant for a medical school in Southwest Virginia proposed by Bristol, Tenn.-based King University.

Since then, the proposed project has changed in several ways. Plans for the medical school have been dropped, and King University is no longer involved. The revised project creates a new governing body, the Alliance for Rural Health, which will bring together a group of institutions to educate physicians and health professionals, perform research, expand clinical-care approaches and promote business and workforce development programs.  The organization’s ultimate goal is to create a healthy and prosperous Southwest Virginia.

The alliance’s academic partners will be responsible for granting academic degrees and certifications. The project’s partners include the Virginia Community

College System, Emory & Henry College, East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine, Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine and Mountain State Health Alliance.

In explaining the change in its focus, project board member John Shoulders said starting a medical school would prove costly and could take decades. “We concluded that it would be not only more realistic, but actually also more efficacious, to engage with nearby existing institutions, to bring into our region medical student rotations and graduate residencies that we do not now have,” he said in a statement. 

The Washington County Board of Supervisors filed a lawsuit asking that the $50,000 it provided for the project be returned. Tariq Zaidi, the interim president and chief operating officer of the Alliance, says the organization will “vigorously defend” itself against the suit.

The project’s capital budget is $38 million. The money would be used to build the Collaborative Health Science Center (which would serve as the project’s headquarters in Abingdon), renovate a portion of Emory & Henry’s campus and buy clinical training equipment. Half of those funds would come from the Tobacco Commission and the rest would be matched by $19 million in assets the alliance already has.  

In action to delays and changes in the project, the original $25 million grant pledged by the Tobacco Commission was reduced to $20 million in 2014,  of which it allowed up to $1 million to be spent for project development costs through September 2013. In January, the commission will consider whether it will extend the rest of the grant to the Alliance.

“The original grant was for a ‘School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ and specifically mentioned a couple other nursing programs, etc., so the new vision is arguably not entirely out of line with the original, though certainly lacking a four-year medical school at this point,” the commission’s Interim executive director, Tim Pfohl, said in an email.

The project’s strategic adviser, Jeff Mitchell, says the venture has always been about medical education, although the medical school aspect received the most attention.

Asked about the Alliance’s plans for the Tobacco Commission meeting in January, Zaidi says it “will deliver a report that shows that we are ready to begin to implement the project, that all the major parts have come together, that we are ready to begin because this isn’t a grant application, the grant is approved,” he says.

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