Several senators and senatorial candidates came out to urge the University of the Virgin Islands to build a proposed medical school on St. Croix, when the UVI Board of Trustees met Thursday for a presentation and update on plans for the school.
Chicago-based New Generation Power and its chairman, Dr. Chirinjeev Kathuria, pledged $30 million to help endow a medical school in the territory in April.
At the time, UVI officials said discussion of a new medical school began in 2010 with the Boston University School of Medicine and that such a school would work in partnership with both the territory’s hospitals.
The university estimates that $10 million from local and national donors is still needed to make the medical school a reality. Tuition costs are estimated to be below market for Caribbean medical schools and UVI hopes to enroll its first class in 2016-17.
In July, the UVI Board of Trustees named Dr. Benjamin Sachs interim dean to the nascent school. Meanwhile, its location and other details are still being worked out.
Shortly after opening the meeting at 10 a.m., Board Chairman Henry Smock cited provisions of V.I. law allowing closed meetings to discuss personnel matters and to discuss ongoing negotiations and sensitive financial issues and moved to go into executive session. Smock emphasized that no vote would be taken regarding the medical school that day.
Sens. Judi Buckley, Diane Capehart, Kenneth Gittens and Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly were at the meeting and the trustees voted to allow them to remain during the executive session.
Several hours later, Buckley, Capehart and Rivera-O’Reilly came out of the meeting, which was still ongoing as of 3:30 p.m. All three senators said the presentation had recommended putting the medical school itself on St. Thomas and a simulation lab on St. Croix. The simulation lab would be used by third year medical students to practice on mannequins, they said.
"They emphasized the simulation lab could have a big economic impact, possibly more than the school itself," Buckley said.
She said they are recommending St. Thomas as the location for the actual med school because it has more physicians with which students can work and because they need to work with an accredited medical facility to be an accredited medical school.
"It has to be associated with an accredited hospital and that was the number one criteria," Buckley said, adding that her next stop would be to speak with JFL Chief Executive Officer Kendall Griffith about the status of the St. Croix hospital’s accreditation.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website shows Schneider Regional Medical Center to have an accreditation for the hospital and for its laboratory. For Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix, it shows only the laboratory as accredited. (See Related Links below)
The St. Croix senators all expressed the view that St. Croix is a better location, has more space and more urgently needs the development.
Capehart and Rivera-O’Reilly both said the challenge now is to answer and address the concerns and try to get the school to St. Croix. Rivera-O’Reilly said she wanted to see more information about how the UVI Board of Trustees came to its conclusions. "There is a feasibility study and we did not get to see it," Rivera-O’Reilly said. “But they told us they would give it to us after they redacted the personal information.”
If accreditation is an issue, it can be changed, and the hospital accredited in the future, Rivera-O’Reilly said. "So really I don’t see any challenges we could not overcome on St. Croix," she said.
She also said she had legislation preempting anyone from funding the medical school construction from remitted federal alcohol excise taxes in the Internal Revenue Matching Fund. Those funds pay for most government sponsored capital projects in the territory and are the most likely source of funding for such a project. Rivera-O’Reilly, Capehart and Buckley all said that the simulation lab could be a good thing for St. Croix and they would not want to kill the project, but wanted to explore all avenues and press the case for St. Croix.
In a statement after the lengthy closed-door session, UVI President David Hall said that the UVI School of Medicine "belongs to the territory" and that "of the two facilities that will be built – one will be located on St. Croix and one will be located on St. Thomas.”
The UVI Board will make the final determination on which island each facility will be located, he said. Before that, however, the board has decided to get more feedback and involvement from stakeholders and elected officials. Hall also said the public will have an opportunity to voice their opinions via planned public forums. Dates for the public forums have not been set.
After a more than five-hour meeting, the executive session lost quorum and discussion was suspended. A continuation date has not yet been set.