A stitch in time
ODU, EVMS eye potential merger
At the end of 2020, Eastern Virginia Medical School firmly rejected a study recommending that the medical school merge to become part of Old Dominion University.
But time passes, minds change, and sometimes there’s turnover at the top.
In August 2021, Dr. Richard Homan, who’d led EVMS for nearly a decade, retired. By December, Dr. Alfred Abuhamad, then the medical school’s interim president, signed an agreement with ODU’s new president, Brian Hemphill, and Howard Kern, then president and CEO of Sentara Healthcare, pledging “to explore ways closer alignment or affiliation could enhance their collaborative efforts to strengthen educational research and health care outcomes in Hampton Roads.”
And this summer, ODU hired Dr. Alicia Monroe as chief integration officer and senior adviser to Hemphill, a two-year position to establish an academic health sciences center with EVMS and Sentara Healthcare. In July, Hemphill wrote a letter to ODU’s faculty and staff stating that the university’s goal is “to develop a comprehensive plan to integrate ODU and EVMS in 2023.”
Even so, school officials weren’t quite ready to say the two institutions are merging.
In response to questions from Virginia Business, the two schools released a joint statement stating it was premature to respond to the question, “Is EVMS becoming an arm of ODU?”
Aubrey Layne, Sentara’s senior corporate vice president and chief of staff, didn’t share that hesitation, however.
“EVMS is affiliating or actually combining with Old Dominion as part of their plan to become a sustainable medical school,” he said during an August interview.
To make the partnership official, Virginia’s General Assembly would have to give the OK, according to both EVMS spokesperson Vincent Rhodes and Layne, who added that he, along with officials from the two schools, met with Gov. Glenn Youngkin in August about the plan.
A spokesperson from the governor’s office confirmed that Youngkin “had a meeting with the appropriate partners to gather additional information on the collaboration between the entities,” without providing more detail.
“I think the political will is there,” Layne says.
A joint effort
Founded in 1973 as a public institution not affiliated with an undergraduate university, EVMS took shape after community leaders became alarmed about a physician shortage in the region.
“We grew out of the community, and collaboration is in our genes,” says C. Donald Combs, EVMS vice president and dean of the School of Health Professions.
Close cooperation between Sentara and EVMS hasn’t always come naturally, though. In 2020 and 2021, the medical school paid Vienna-based public relations firm Tigercomm $497,000 for crisis communications and community support work in what Tigercomm President Mike Casey has said was a bid to avoid a potential EVMS-ODU-Sentara merger “being pushed by Sentara” at the time. Tigercomm’s work for EVMS came under media scrutiny in 2021 in a series of articles focusing on the fact that Casey had co-founded in 2011 an investigative watchdog blog, Checks & Balances Project, that had been publishing a series of articles critical of Sentara since late 2020. EVMS and Tigercomm were adamant that they didn’t pay C&BP for its coverage of Sentara, and Casey notes that he does not have “ownership or control” of C&BP or its content.
So, how did Sentara and EVMS go from that awkward place to embarking on a partnership with ODU?
“A lot of it has to do with a change in leadership,” Layne says. Aside from Abuhamad, who became EVMS’ permanent president, provost and medical school dean in June, Hemphill became ODU’s ninth president in July 2021, succeeding John Broderick. At Sentara, Kern retired at the end of August, with Dennis Matheis becoming president and CEO in September.
Hemphill, who served as Radford University’s president for five years, came to Norfolk after overseeing the 2019 merger between the Jefferson College of Health Sciences and Carilion Clinic to create Radford University Carilion, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in health sciences.
In his June letter, Hemphill wrote, “Although much work remains ahead, the vision is clear. ODU and EVMS face an important moment with the promising potential to achieve more through a full integration, which is both impactful and inspiring.”
Sentara, ODU and EVMS officials also note that collaboration will also help improve health care for Hampton Roads residents.
In terms of finances, Sentara makes the argument that EVMS needs to partner with a public university — like Virginia Tech’s partnership with Carilion Clinic to create the VTC School of Medicine — to receive “state funding parity with other Virginia schools” and be better positioned to raise philanthropic dollars.
For fiscal year 2021, EVMS had an annual budget of about $278 million. About $31 million of that came from the state government. Sentara gives more than $60 million to the school for education and training each year, according to Layne. In March, Sentara also donated $6 million to EVMS, ODU and Norfolk State University to develop the ONE School of Public Health, which will be Virginia’s first such institution.
“The issue here has to deal with additional funding, so that the EVMS is a sustainable organization into the future,” Layne says.
Underlying the entire merger discussion is the severe staffing shortage affecting the health care field.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported this year that about 18% of Virginia hospitals are “critically understaffed,” a situation Virginia state Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, is familiar with as a nurse practitioner.
“We’ve been in a shortage of primary care providers for a while,” she says. “And then, on top of that, is our mental health care provider workforce challenges.”
Kiggans says a merger between EVMS and ODU would be “instrumental” in bolstering the region’s health care workforce pipeline. “It keeps us competitive with places like Charlottesville and U.Va. and even Richmond and VCU.”
By joining forces, Sentara, EVMS and ODU could share staff members and health science libraries, as well as bolster clinical opportunities for students, she adds. “None of these individual institutions of learning can survive independently.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected and updated to clarify the authorship of a blog that published stories about Sentara Healthcare. The Sentara stories were published on the blog Checks & Balances Project, which was co-founded by Mike Casey, the president of public relations firm Tigercomm, but Casey has said he doesn’t own or control C&BP or its content; C&BP is a client of Tigercomm.