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Billings Clinic ends talks with developers of proposed new med school

Hospital cites insensitive comments
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Posted at 4:33 PM, Mar 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-25 12:36:18-04

Officials at Billings Clinic have come out against a $78 million, for-profit osteopathic medical school proposed on Billings West End, expressing concerns about competition with its other medical training fields and highlighting ethnically insensitive and sexist comments made by representatives of the med school.

The clinic announced Wednesday that its board of directors voted unanimously Tuesday to end all conversations with Medforth Global Healthcare Education, the private equity firm that owns Rocky Vista University. The school proposed Feb. 23 to build the Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine, a 135,000-square-foot facility on a 12-acre campus off the intersection of Shiloh and Monad roads.

In a news release, the clinic highlighted three instances where Rocky Vista representatives made the insensitive comments. On two occasions, an executive with Rocky Vista "cast aspersions" on a rival proposed medical school in Great Falls for its Jewish heritage, noting that a Jewish school may not be able to assimilate well in Montana, according to Billings Clinic.

The hospital did not name the university but is most likely referring to the Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is working with Benefis Health Systems in Great Falls to build a school, according to The Electric in Great Falls.

In a third instance, the hospital said a different representative of the school referred to a female Billings Clinic leader as a "token."

Billings Clinic officials also said they want to ensure they can continue their partnerships with their existing training programs, including the Montana medical track at the University of Washington's multi-state medical program, Rocky Mountain College, the University of Montana, Montana State University, Montana State University-Billings and the clinic's own internal medicine residency program.

It wasn't immediately clear whether this announcement from Billings Clinic will delay or kill the project, which was announced last month in partnership with Big Sky Economic Development.

(Update: David Forstein, Rocky Vista provost, said the university is investigating the comments cited by Billings Clinic and remains committed to a "diverse, inclusive and safe environment. Rocky Vista plans to move forward without Billings Clinic, he added. His full statement is at the bottom of this story.)

Rocky Vista expected the start-up period in Billings to run from this year through 2023 and cost $78.6 million, provide 350 jobs to the area and generate $1.2 million in tax revenue to communities in the area, according to a news release from Big Sky Economic Development.

Rocky Vista University was established in 2006 as the nation’s first private, for-profit health sciences university to offer a professional medical degree since 1910, according to the school's website.

When the project was first announced, Dr. Toni Green-Cheatwood, chief medical officer of Billings Clinic, said the hospital was excited about the economic opportunity of Rocky Vista but wanted to ensure it didn't take away from other training programs.

Officials at St. Vincent Healthcare, Billings' other hospital, also offered support during the initial announcement.

Here's the full news release from Billings Clinic:

Billings Clinic has decided to end conversations with Medforth Global Healthcare Education related to Medforth’s plan to open a medical school in Billings. Medforth is a private equity firm based in New York, NY, that owns Rocky Vista University (RVU), a private, for-profit osteopathic medical school. RVU has campus locations in Parker, Colorado and Ivins, Utah.

Medical education is a cornerstone of Billings Clinic’s mission and Billings Clinic had been in early stages of reviewing the opportunity with our physicians and others about the feasibility of expanding teaching for additional medical students during their clinical rotations. We have been concerned about ensuring continuity of our existing priority educational collaborations with the Montana medical school track of WWAMI, Rocky Mountain College, the University of Montana, Montana State University, Montana State University Billings and many others. Additionally, we have a strong commitment to Billings Clinic’s Internal Medicine Residency program, the partnership with the University of Washington for our Psychiatry Residency, the Montana Family Medicine Residency and to our new efforts to add a Billings Clinic Surgical Residency.

Billings Clinic has had concerns about many aspects of the Medforth project. These concerns, combined with three events that occurred recently, have caused Billings Clinic to cease discussions with Medforth. On two separate occasions an executive representative of the medical school cast aspersions on a proposed medical school in Great Falls, Montana, on the basis of that medical school’s Jewish affiliation. Those statements intimated that a school with a stated Jewish heritage may not belong in Montana and would not be able to assimilate in the state. In a third instance, a different executive representative of the medical school referred to a female Billings Clinic leader as a “token.” These comments are inconsistent with Billings Clinic’s core values, including a dedication to diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging.

The Billings Clinic Board of Directors reviewed these issues on Tuesday and took unanimous action to end conversations with Medforth.

Billings Clinic will continue pursuing medical education relationships and opportunities at a scale that is appropriate and with partnerships that fit our Billings Clinic core values. The work to advance medical education capacity in Montana will continue.

Here's the full response from Rocky Vista University Provost David Forstein:

We were informed by the Billings Clinic of their decision to not participate in the development of the proposed Rocky Vista University medical school in Billings. While we are disappointed in that decision and have been working diligently to maintain an inclusive process throughout the project, we were more disappointed to learn of comments attributed to two members of our team referenced in their notification.

RVU is deeply committed to providing our students, faculty and staff with a diverse, inclusive and safe environment across our University and healthcare community and are taking the appropriate steps to investigate this matter fully. This commitment is reflected in the diverse leadership we maintain across the highest levels of the University. We hold ourselves to higher standards and we simply do not condone disparaging or insensitive comments targeted at any race, ethnicity, gender or religion.

At the same time, we remain committed to the development of the project and meeting the needs for skilled medical professionals in Montana and the Mountain West region. We look forward to continuing to work to help meet the growing and unmet healthcare delivery needs in underserved and rural areas across Montana and beyond.