Med School Proposal Gets Complex

January 14, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — What were, heading into 2004, largely quiet, low-key discussions about the future of medical education in Grand Rapids accelerated during the year and broke wide open, pushing the issue to the forefront.

Those discussions led to a decision by Michigan State University trustees in May to endorse a conceptual plan to relocate much of its College of Human Medicine to Grand Rapids over a 10-year period — at an estimated cost of (gulp!) $309 million, a price consultants later said was too low — by partnering with Spectrum Health and others.

The hefty price accompanying the university's conceptual proposal, pushed by former MSU President Peter McPherson who retired with the new year, caused considerable pause in Grand Rapids among community, health-care and business leaders who are anxious for a local medical school that would greatly bolster the region's emerging bio-sciences sector.

By fall, a new idea had emerged, prepared by consultants brought in to evaluate and massage MSU's conceptual proposal: Focus on the research components as a way to build the foundation for a medical school in Grand Rapids, then move students later.

And it would begin bringing the medical school here for a considerably lower cost: about $100 million plus another $50 million to $150 million for the required facilities, vs. the $450 million to $500 million in a revised estimate from Deloitte Consulting.

Consultants said moving the medical school to Grand Rapids would generate a cumulative economic impact of $1.57 billion in the first 10 years and create more than 2,800 related jobs.

The report from Deloitte Consulting offered an alternative scenario that plays more into the region's medical strengths and needs and also addressed lingering concerns over the massive cost to develop a full medical school campus in Grand Rapids.

"These alternatives, at least conceptually, appear to better fit the needs and capital capacity of West Michigan," the Deloitte Consulting report stated. "From a West Michigan perspective, the initial MSU proposal was impractical, expensive and did not fully meet the region's needs."

The report, commissioned by a group of local business and community leaders and financed by Grand Action Committee, redirected discussions with MSU toward focusing on the immediate buildup of a research base in Grand Rapids as the College of Human Medicine improves its financial performance, followed by the later relocation of students and the clinical aspects of a medical school. Such a scenario, consultants said, would cost far less in terms of upfront capital than the proposal MSU put forward last spring, as well as avoid associated cost implications for the local health-care system.

Key players in the medical school discussions with MSU viewed the framework that Deloitte Consulting offered as a better route to take than the costly conceptual proposal MSU trustees adopted in May.

"It's a more pragmatic framework. The timing of it is better, as opposed to bringing everything in a very short timeframe," Spectrum Health CEO Rick Breon said. "All of the attributes of a medical school may be a little easier to transition than if you do everything at once."

The medical school question came alive in 2004 after years of discussions between MSU and local health-care providers about expanding the College of Human Medicine's presence in Grand Rapids, where more than 70 third- and fourth-year medical students now receive their clinical training annually at Spectrum Health and Saint Mary's Health Care.

At the urging of Deloitte Consulting, a local work group was formed to carry the issue forward. The group is led by the Van Andel Institute and involves Spectrum Health, Saint Mary's Health Care, Grand Valley State University and the economic development agency The Right Place Inc. and Grand Action Committee.

"We really are at the beginning of the process. We're re-setting the clock and we've said we really want to do this and now we have to figure out how to do this," David Van Andel, chairman of the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, told the Business Journal in November.

And now Grand Rapids awaits the findings in 2005 of Van Andel's work group.    

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