Heartwell Wants The Med School

May 14, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — It is, quite literally, the $309 million question in Grand Rapids these days.

Can Michigan State University come up with the millions needed to move much of the College of Human Medicine to Grand Rapids?

While MSU President Peter McPherson says the university is up to the task, he’s unwilling at this point to offer specifics on how he plans to accomplish or even pursue that goal or identify what led him to that conclusion.

Yet however MSU proceeds, one thing is clear: Generating the kind of capital needed for a major expansion of the medical school into Grand Rapids must become the responsibility of many and require the involvement of far more than the handful of philanthropic families who have given generously over the years.

“There is a limit to the amount of philanthropy that’s available. It has to be a shared obligation and look to all the parties that benefit from this,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who last week brought together representatives from a variety of interests to begin laying the groundwork for the task ahead.

Those parties, at minimum, include Grand Rapids, MSU and the state of Michigan, Heartwell said.

In bringing together “key stakeholders,” Heartwell wants to assure that when MSU comes forward to seek assistance — whether financial, planning, logistical, site selection or any unforeseen issues — Grand Rapids is ready to take up the challenge and mount a coordinated, collaborative response. He wants Grand Rapids to become as prepared as possible to meet the unprecedented opportunity MSU has presented the community in moving forward with a conceptual plan to relocate much of the College of Human Medicine.

“There’s a whole lot of groundwork to do to be prepared for that time. We want to be united,” said Heartwell, who hopes to arrange a meeting soon between the group and McPherson and College of Human Medicine Dean Glenn Smith.

“For this to work and to be done well— as it should be — it will take everybody working together here in the community. It has to be collaborative,” he said. “We don’t want to miss this opportunity or miss some barrier that pops up out of nowhere that trips us up.”

The mayor organized the meeting of those who would or could have a role in a significant expansion of medical education in Grand Rapids. That included representatives from Spectrum Health, which MSU wants to affiliate with for a Grand Rapids medical school campus, Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center and Metropolitan Hospital; the Van Andel Institute; the Grand Rapids Medical Education and Research Center for Health Professions; Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College and Aquinas College; the Alliance for Health; Grand Action; and the city of Grand Rapids.

The gathering of key players came days after MSU trustees unanimously backed a conceptual plan to develop a four-year medical school campus in Grand Rapids by 2009.

A financial report released days prior to the May 7 vote pegged the cost of the move at $309 million, which includes creating a $150 million endowment to cover an estimated $2.5 million annual operating cost and $159 million in one-time costs.

While a major financial undertaking, MSU’s McPherson believes securing the financial commitments to pull off the move is doable. McPherson, who plans to retire as MSU president Jan. 1, wants to have enough details worked out so he can take a final proposal back to the Board of Trustees later this year.

“Clearly it’s possible,” McPherson said. “I wouldn’t have gone this far if I didn’t think we could do this.”

MSU presently has a “good” medical school, McPherson said, “The question is, can we have a great medical school?”

McPherson wouldn’t say how or when MSU would begin the push to secure the financial commitments needed for an expansion of the medical school and development of a Grand Rapids campus, an idea that has been talked about for several years and began to take shape in the last several months, other than “we’ll tell about it more as time goes on.”

Part of the future deliberations depends on MSU’s ability to reach an affiliation agreement with Spectrum Health, which continues to tread cautiously in discussing the possible venture under the premise that any linkage with the College of Human Medicine must make good business sense and not throw the health system’s cost structure out of whack.

Spectrum Health presently spends about $20 million a year to support medical education, and President and CEO Rick Breon says there is room for the health system to contribute to the transitional costs of bringing a full medical school campus to Grand Rapids.

But beyond that, pulling off the move financially requires the involvement of far more participants than Spectrum Health and a major collaborative community effort, Breon said. While he agrees that developing a College of Human Medicine campus in Grand Rapids is a “doable” proposition, “a lot of the planets have to be aligned carefully for that to occur,” Breon said.

The 8-0 vote earlier this month by MSU trustees to support the conceptual proposal for a Grand Rapids medical school campus gave McPherson the green light to try to bring together the forces needed to bring about that alignment. With the backing of trustees, McPherson now plans to work on putting the details together, most importantly the financial aspects of the move and secured funding. He hopes to have much of that work done by the end of the year.

Trustees will still need to give final approval to implement the move.

“It’s a good idea; now let’s see if we can do it,” McPherson said. “You’ve got to be confident about the money and you have to have all the other details worked out.”

McPherson and others see a Grand Rapids campus as providing the College of Human Medicine far greater research capabilities through potential partnerships with the Van Andel Institute that could draw “enormous” research funding. A strong presence in Grand Rapids also would connect the medical school to a generous philanthropic community that has shown strong support for the health care and biosciences sectors over the years.

“This gives us an opportunity to move to a new tier,” MSU Trustee Scott Romney said.           

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