New Mexico’s top elected officials and business leaders will gather Monday in Las Cruces to unveil a unique partnership they hope will pilot the biggest enhancement in medical education in state history.
The $85 million Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine is planned as a privately funded for-profit school with the goal of graduating 150 osteopathic doctors a year starting in 2020, some of whom will be paired with new medical residency programs in Las Cruces and El Paso.
Located at the Arrowhead Center, the technology and business incubator of New Mexico State University, the college will have an affiliation with the university and the NMSU Foundation for student services, housing, faculty teaching and scholarship assistance.
The medical school is the culmination of an effort by a group of Las Cruces medical and business leaders who hope the college can be a game changer for health care in underserved Southern New Mexico.
“The mission from the very beginning is not only to address the severe shortage of physicians in our region of the country, but the shortage in the Hispanic community and the Native American community,” said John L. Hummer, a business leader in Las Cruces with experience in health care management and who serves as chief executive of the school.
“I truly believe with the challenges going on with state revenues and the economy, merging private investment with what has traditionally been publicly funded medical schools is the model, you will see more of this public-private merging,” he said.
Hummer said the group approached five existing medical schools — and three showed an interest in expanding a branch campus to New Mexico — before private investor Daniel Burrell, a Santa Fe businessman, heard about the effort in mid-2013.
Within a few months, Burrell, with commitments from his family and other investors, agreed to move forward with capitalizing the construction and operations — and it has moved quickly since.
“We see this as a long-term investment,” said Burrell, former chief executive of Santa Fe-based Rosemont Realty and owner of Burrell Western Resources. “You can solve big problems like this through public-private partnerships, and the more elected leaders begin to embrace this model fully, I think they will find there are immense possibilities.”
NMSU President Garrey Carruthers said the fact that Burrell already had ties to NMSU with an undergraduate scholarship program made the decision to partner with him easier.
“NMSU is not in a position to come up with the capital,” Carruthers said. So the choice was a branch campus, “building a whole new culture here,” or going with a Burrell, “a New Mexican willing to make an investment in New Mexico.”
Still, Carruthers, who is a Republican and served as governor from 1987 to 1991, is sensitive to claims that the school will use capital outlay money from the Legislature or other public funds. “My commitment is that this is a private deal, and we will not commit any public money or invest in the Burrell College of Medicine,” Carruthers said.
The viability of a second medical school for the state was first proposed by Dr. George Mychaskiw, a nationally known pediatric anesthesiologist with an extensive background in medical education. Now living full time in Las Cruces, his work in medical policy focuses on underserved Hispanic and Native American communities.
Mychaskiw is the dean of the new college and is already recruiting faculty. For the past year, he has partnered with Hummer, who has worked on hospital development around the United States, to rally support for the project and start on the development work. Hummer was also co-chairman of a group in Southern New Mexico that fashioned support for a gross receipts tax to help fund the Spaceport America project near Truth or Consequences.
The pair forged relations with administrators at NMSU in early 2013, advocating for increased medical education in Las Cruces, but the state seemed unable to step up with funding. Their efforts included reaching out to existing medical schools on the East Coast and visiting campuses such as Virginia Tech to look at organizational models.
Then Burrell hired Hummer’s real estate company to scout locations around Anthony, Santa Teresa and Las Cruces for a processing plant that could accommodate rocks trucked from a new garnet mine in Oro Grande, N.M., 50 miles north of El Paso. Burrell left Rosemont Realty to purchase the mining rights to what he estimates will soon be the largest reserve of industrial garnet in the United States, bringing dozens of jobs to the Alamogordo area.
Burrell said his father worked in hospital management and has ties to private hospital companies around Las Cruces. Burrell also worked in the area of domestic policy under the Clinton administration and understands how the expansion of Medicaid in New Mexico will trigger the need for additional primary care.
He and his backers hired a consultant to make sure the business was financially viable. He understands “there is some controversy in the for-profit model” of education, but that often focuses on programs with remote faculty and online degrees. A better model, he said, would be Rocky Vista College of Osteopathic Medicine, a closely held for-profit school near Denver that is fully accredited and graduated its first class in August 2012.
Ralph McClish, executive director of the New Mexico Osteopathic Medical Association, said his group often sponsors continuing education for physicians to coincide with the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. When doctors visit, they sometimes decide to retire here and then can affiliate with a practice and work part time.
“Once you’re touched by New Mexico, you tend to come back,” he said.
But getting more young physicians to start careers here and raise families would be huge, he said, adding that the affiliation with NMSU increases the chances students will expand social circles in the state and possibly even meet a spouse.
“Teaming up with NMSU to bring in young people to go to medical schools, you’re more likely to be a resident of New Mexico, you’re more likely to build a life in New Mexico, do a residency here, and not leave our state and take your skills someplace else.”
John Harris, chief executive officer of Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces, said the United States has an average of 3.12 physicians per thousand, while his region has 1.5 per thousand. “We [have] less than half the number of doctors in this part of the world to support the population,” he said.
Additionally, of the 320 doctors now practicing in Las Cruces, more than 100 are at or above retirement age.
Statewide, the percentage of physicians over the age of 65 is highest in the United States, according to a feasibility study of the medical school by TrippUmbach consulting.
For Memorial Medical, that means constant recruiting — Harris said they bring in some 15 new doctors a year at a cost of $300,000 for travel, moving and a years’ subsidy while they are getting started, which is typical in the industry. “Not everyone wants to come to the desert Southwest,” he said.
Physicians can also be very mobile — and current estimates are that 39 percent of medical graduates at The University of New Mexico stay in New Mexico. But with the new school and its residency programs, it might be possible to increase that to 50 percent. Within eight years, the school will add 75 new physicians to New Mexico a year, according to estimates.
One reason for that is that osteopathic medicine, unlike the allopathic model at UNM, concentrates on primary care and encourages students to build stronger ties within the community, McClish said.
The medical school could also be a shot in the arm for the economy. If construction moves ahead in early 2015 as planned, it will inject $26 million into the sector and create 377 jobs. Burrell has pledged to use only New Mexico companies for planning, design, engineering, paving, materials and construction.
“Even compared with the garnet mine, for what it means for New Mexico, this is a whole other scale,” Burrell said. “Three hundred construction jobs,
75 full-time faculty members — all with health insurance and full benefits.”
In all, the school is expected to operate with 162 employees — from a medical school dean who might earn $400,000 to department heads, faculty and support staff — some earning up to $200,000. An economic impact study predicts another 288 indirect jobs from the spending on contract work, materials, technology supplies, food, transportation, homes and equipment.
Still, the project brings with it some concerns about it will affect existing medical education, said Billy Sparks, executive director of communications and marketing for the UNM Health Sciences Center.
The additional residency commitments, Sparks said, accommodate “only one-third of the graduating class. Adding more medical students into the pipeline without sufficiently expanding the number of residencies puts students at risk of not completing their medical education, leaving them with crushing debt loads and no prospect of becoming doctors. This would simply add to the backlog and not result in the production of more practicing physicians,” he said in a statement.
Sparks emphasized that UNM is not opposed to the new college, just raising concerns. Another, according to his administrators, is higher tuition at for-profit schools. “It is well-established that graduates with high levels of debt will select urban practices over rural sites, which are suffering from the most severe physician shortages.”
Burrell counters that the school only decided to move forward with support from regional medical centers. It is teaming with Las Palmas Del Sol HealthCare, a 600-bed hospital in El Paso, as well as MountainView Regional Medical Center and Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces for graduate medical education slots.
The organization that accredits medical schools often will not do so unless there is an expansion of what are called “Clinical Partnerships.”
Although the slots are part of a national pool, the fact that they are close to Las Cruces could be an incentive for graduates to apply and remain in the community.
“If you don’t have a hospital partner, you would be putting more students into the pool that need graduate medical education without populating more residencies and clerkships in the pie,” Burrell said. “Accreditors are very sensitive to that, so its very rare that a new medical school will get accredited. We’ve resolved it.”
He said the executives of the school’s hospital partners will be at Monday’s announcement, set for 10 a.m. “The hospitals are going to create 125 clerkships and 125 residencies, so ironically UNM will also be competing for these spots. The point is we’re increasing the overall supply. It’s one of the largest increases in graduate medical education in the last decade,” Burrell said.
Tuition, Burrell said, will not be as low as UNM charges to in-state students, but will be the same as other out-of-state medical students pay to attend programs away from home — between $45,000 to $50,000 a year. The tuition amount also has to be approved by accrediting officials.
Benefits for NMSU
For NMSU, the new medical school brings could invigorate other areas of study. There also is an agreement, pushed by Carruthers, for the Burrell College to donate $500,000 a year to the NMSU Foundation for scholarship assistance to undergraduates. There are numerous other intangibles, he added, that might flow from the new medical education opportunities. For instance, students could pursue joint degrees in business and public health, and NMSU could see increased interest from prospective pre-med, science, technology, engineering and mathematics students.
Burrell sees the program as an anchor for additional medical education, maybe even a dental school.
Burrell, who came to New Mexico after working for the presidential campaign of John Kerry and backing Democrat Diane Denish for governor, will be standing alongside Republican Gov. Susana Martinez at Monday’s unveiling of the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Still, he said, the project is an example how the private sector can both make money and do good — and that partnerships like the medical school might be looked at for other entrenched problems in New Mexico, such as funding water and infrastructure.
He said New Mexico, as a capital-deprived state, should be looking for more collaboration.
“I never could have done this without the support of NMSU, and they never could have done it because they couldn’t get
$85 million out of the Legislature. So what are the options? Do nothing? Burrell asked.
“We did something, and I think it could be a model.”
Contact Bruce Krasnow at email@example.com.