Friday, January 10, 2020

Who Owns, and Who is Accountable for the New US For-Profit Medical Schools?




Mysteries still abound in the not so wonderful world of health care dysfunction, so once again, quick, the game's afoot...

The current mysteries involve beneficial ownership.  Beneficial ownership questions are important to anti-corruption campaigners.  Beneficial ownership simply refers to "anyone who enjoys the benefits of ownership of a security or property, without being on the record as being the owner." (per Wikipedia). Concealing who really owns a company enables concealing sources of funds (as in money laundering), market power (when the owner also owns competitors), and sources of political influence, and enables those benefiting from the actions of the company to escape responsibility for their consequences.

We recently discussed the mystery of the beneficial ownership of a local pharmaceutical company, an issue that became more interesting when it was revealed it was owned by the Sackler family, the owners of the now somewhat infamous Purdue Pharma.  A while back we discussed the mysteries surrounding the ownership of several offshore medical schools (look here and here).

I was recently involved in a conversation about the rise of onshore, that is US based for-profit medical schools, four of which are now known to exist.  It turns out that their ownership is also rather unclear.

That for-profit medical schools now exist in the US is not widely known.  The best, and nearly only public discussion of the topic appeared in a 2017 article in JAMA [Adashi EY, Krishna GR, Grappuso PA. For-profit medical schools - a Flexnerian legacy upended.  JAMA 2017; 317: 1209-10.  Link here.]  It listed four such schools that were operating or in development.

Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine

Rocky Vista was the first for-profit to open.  Its President is Clinton E Adams DO.  The university website is silent on its ownership.  Some searching reveals, however, that it, along with St Georges University in Grenada, is owned by Medforth Global Healthcare Education, whose CEO is Dr Andrew Sussman, who was "most recently Executive Vice President of Clinical Services at CVS Health."

However, who owns Medforth, and hence to whom Dr Sussman reports, is unclear.  We do know that in 2014, "Canadian private equity firm Altas Partners LP and pan Asia firm Baring Private Equity Asia have acquired a substantial stake in St George’s University," per Reuters.  A reference on the financial website Mergr suggested that Atlas and Baring targeted Medforth per se.  Who, in turn, actually owns Atlas and Baring, and to whom at those firms the leadership of Medforth, and thus ultimately the leadership of Rocky Vista report, is unclear.


Ponce Health Sciences University

The President of Ponce Health Sciences University is Dr David Lenihan.  According to his welcome statement,

Ponce was acquired by University Ventures Corporation in September 2014, to operate Ponce Health Sciences University and appoints Dr. David Lenihan. Dr. David Lenihan is used to taking risks. It is evidenced by his academic training in neuroscience, chiropractic and law. Also, his foray into the administrative side of science education. Recently, the greatest risk it has taken is the acquisition and transformation, through Arist Medical Sciences University, of the Ponce Health Sciences University. As the main academic officer of Arist, Lenihan guided the process of purchase and evolution of the School, a widely recognized institution with around 40 years of training professionals of excellence in the field of health in the south of Puerto Rico.

According to Bloomberg,

Arist Medical Sciences University, Public Benefit Corporation was founded in 2014. The company's line of business includes the operation of colleges and universities.

Arist Medical Sciences University is apparently part of Arist Education System.  Its website states

Arist Education System is an investment of Bertelsmann — a global media, services and education company.

Furthermore, it claims

Bertelsmann stands for entrepreneurship and creativity. This combination promotes first-class media content and innovative service solutions that inspire customers around the world. Bertelsmann’s supply of capital will support innovative graduate and professional health and human sciences programs that are making a positive impact.

So it appears that Ponce is now owned by Bertelsmann.  What a diversified global media company is doing running a medical school is not clear.

Nor is the identity to the person at Bertelsmann to whom the leadership of Arist, including Dr Lenihan, reports.  Although the Bertelsmann website lists the company's top executives, and the top managers of the Bertlesmann Education Group, the chain of command for the US for-profit medical school is not apparent.


California Northstate University College of Medicine

According to the university website, the president is Alvin Cheung, Pharm D.  The university has a board of trustees, but does not provide their biographies or explain their role.

The website provides no information about the ownership of the university, although a 2016 Sacramento Bee article stated "Backers raised more than $50 million to fund the school." I can find business listings for a California Northstate University LLC, eg here, stating it is a privately held business, but containing no information about ownership or if the business leadership is the same as the listed medical school leadership. Thus the ownership of California Northstate University LLC, and thus presumably of the medical school, is entirely opaque.


Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine

The President is John Hummer MHA.  There is a board of trustees, chaired by Robert V Wingo, with biographies provided but whose role is not explained.

An article in the Las Cruces Sun-News from 2016 called it "a first-of-its-kind, privately funded U.S. medical school."  An Albuquerque Journal article from 2015 stated.


Burrell is entirely financed by private investors, led by Santa Fe businessman Dan Burrell in partnership with the Rice Management Co., which oversees Rice University’s $5.6 billion endowment fund. Although most public attention has centered on Burrell, a well-known real estate mogul, Rice Management is actually the majority investor in the project, estimated to cost a total of $105 million,

Other investors were not named.  Thus only some of the investors in, presumably therefore the owners of Burrell are known.  The rest are anonymous.

Discussion

The ownership of three of the four new US for-profit medical schools is unclear.  One is a private LLC whose ownership is entirely opaque.  One is partially owned by two private equity firms, whose investors are anonymous.  It may also have other, again anonymous owners.  One is owned by a group of investors, some local, some named, and some anonymous.

Anti-corruption campaigners have pushed to reveal the beneficial ownership of all corporate entities.  Transparency International's report on the problem of anonymous beneficial ownership (look here) states:

In the vast majority of countries, it remains legal for companies to hide the identity of their beneficial owners. Embezzlers use anonymously owned companies to move, launder and spend tainted money in the global financial system without being detected. Documents in the Panama Papers, for example, show how kleptocrats and their families used anonymous companies to secretly control state assets and purchase global real estate. Criminals including terrorists, human traffickers, sanctions-busters, drug dealers and tax evaders also use anonymous companies for the same reasons.

Thus anonymous ownership of any US medical school is highly troubling.  Physicians swear oaths to practice with honesty and integrity.  The institutions they train in should be above suspicion of wrong doing and corruption.  Hence medical schools should avoid practices associated with money laundering, fraud, and corruption.

Medical students, faculty, patients and accrediting boards should not trust medical schools who keep their ownership secret.

The people accountable for all four new for-profit medical schools' conduct and operations are likewise unclear. While the schools' hired managers cannot escape responsibility, it is the owners who are ultimately accountable.  But since some of the owners of three of the four new for-profit US medical schools are anonymous, some of the people actually accountable for those schools are also anonymous.


Maybe Sherlock Holmes could help...



but in his absence, medical students, faculty, patients and accrediting boards should not trust medical schools who keep the identity of those accountable for them secret.

Finally, a note about the one school which is apparently now a subsidiary of a publicly held German-based corporation.  Ultimately, the board of directors and top management of that corporation should be held accountable for that school.  However, even in this case, it would inspire more confidence of the exact lines of reporting from medical school to corporate leadership were more clear.

As Adashi et al noted, "the very notion of a for-profit medical school, anathema to generations of medical educators, is still the subject of mixed reviews."  The authors were optimistic that the higher standards for medical schools put in since the Flexner report led to the abolition of proprietary medical schools, and perhaps the supposed greater transparency of the modern era would make it possible for the new proprietary medical schools to educate students well.

However, the current for-profit schools' opacity should lead to great skepticism.  Flexner wrote:

[I]t is universally conceded that medical education cannot be conducted on proper lines at a profit, - or even at cost

His words may very well still be right.

Finally, what we now know about the new for-profit US medical schools suggests we must reexamine our fascination for "market based" approaches to health care, when almost nothing about any part of health care resembles, or could resemble a free market (see this post).  We need to make health care more transparent, and shine more sunshine on the nooks and crannies, like for-profit, anonymously owned US medical schools. 

ADDENDUM (14 January, 2020) - This post was re-posted on the Naked Capitalism blog here.




Wednesday, January 01, 2020

The Risks of Attending an Offshore Medical School: Students at Offshore Medical Schools Killed or Injured by Gas Explosions

US and Canadian medical education has a peculiar gray zone.  A substantial proportion of US and at least some Canadian doctors have received their medical degrees from offshore medical schools.  These are medical schools located in other countries, mainly the Caribbean, that exist only to train students for North American practice.  They are often owned by for-profit US or Canadian based companies, have little accountability to their host countries' governments, or to the US or Canada, and have generally flown under the radar despite being an important component of North American medical eduction..

Many questions have been raised by the quality of training received by students at such offshore schools.  We have recently discovered new risks to offshore medical students, in particular, that of dangerous living conditions.  We were alerted to two cases since 2018.


Gas Explosion Injured Two Medical University of the Americas (MUA) Students, Both Fatally, on Nevis in 2018

As reported by WINN FM on November 15, 2018

At around 8:00 pm on October 3, an explosion rocked the medical university and sent two American students to the hospital with severe burns across their bodies. The two students were subsequently flown to the United States for treatment.

On Wednesday (Nov 14) Acting Commissioner of Police, Hilroy Brandy disclosed that a faulty knob on the stove caused the explosion. He said one of the injured females was the actual occupant of the apartment and a female friend had come over to study. One of them lit a cigarette which ignited the gas.

That explosion eventually proved fatal to one medical student, as reported again by WINN FM on November 21, 2018:

One of the students who sustained major burns in an explosion and fire on Nevis in October has succumbed to her injuries.

28-year-old Nada Magdy Khalil of East Brunswick, New Jersey was one of two female students of the Medical University of the Americas (MUA) in Nevis inside the apartment when it exploded on Oct 3.

WINN FM confirmed that Khalil died on Sunday, November 18 in Florida where she had been receiving treatment.

The other student was very severely injured

The other victim is 31-year-old Gayane Borisovna Balasanyan from San Francisco; she is still hospitalized in Miami, Florida with burns across 90% of her body.
According to her GoFundMe page, Ms Balasanyan died in January, 2019.


There is no other publicly available  information on this explosion. Importantly, there has never been a public response from MUA, or its owners:

Since the explosion, the medical university has not issued a statement on the matter.

Gas Explosion Severely Injured Two Saba University School of Medicine (SUSOM) Students in 2019

There was an unnervingly similar case one year later, as reported by Saba News on October 15, 2019:

Saba’s emergency services were rushed to a dormitory building on Thais Hill Road in The Bottom around 7:30am Saturday, for a gas explosion that left one man severely burned.

A loud crack was heard throughout The Bottom that morning and a large plume of white smoke was seen coming out of the building and drifting into the sky. Several village residents also reported feeling the explosion’s aftershocks, which prompted them to call the Caribbean Netherlands Police Force KPCN and the Saba Fire Department.

Police, firefighters and the Ambulance Department were then dispatched to the building.

The dormitory is a privately-owned building that mainly houses students of Saba University School of Medicine (SUSOM).

Again, two students were injured:

One student was severely burned in the incident and was taken to A.M. Edwards Medical Center for treatment. He was later flown to Miami, Florida, for further medical attention.

A second victim was treated for smoke inhalation and was admitted at A.M. Edwards Medical Center for observation. She was released several hours later.

There is a GoFundMe page which is apparently for the student most seriously burned in this explosion.  It was created 3 days after the explosion, but I could find no other followup information on the explosion or the student.  Again, I could find no public response from SUSOM.

Who Should be Accountable?

These cases have been uncannily anechoic.  While the students injured were from the US, their fate has received no coverage in the US media.  Nor have the cases received recognition in the US health care literature, particularly the medical education literature.

The silence from the medical schools involved is quite unsettling.  That immediately leads to an obvious question.  Just who at these schools might be responsible for their students' physical safety?  Who currently runs and is accountable for both Caribbean schools is not glaringly obvious.

The website for the Medical University of the Americas lists an Executive Dean, but no President or CEO, or Board of Directors.  Its Wikipedia page states:

Medical University of the Americas (MUA) is a for-profit medical school in Saint James Windward Parish, Saint Kitts and Nevis.

Buried in the MUA 2018 catalog, however, is this statement:

Medical University of the Americas is a foreign profit corporation owned by R3 Education Inc. which is registered with the Florida Department of State, Division of Corporations to do business in Florida as Medical University of the Americas.

Saba University School of Medicine has a President, Dr Joseph Chu, according to its website. Its Wikipedia page does not state whether it is non-profit or for-profit.  However, like that  of MUA, the SUSOM 2018 catalog states

Saba University School of Medicine is a foreign profit corporation owned by R3 Education Inc.  which is registered with the Florida Department of State, Division of Corporations to do business in Florida as Saba University School of Medicine.

R3 Education Inc turns out to have a remarkable history, which we  discussed back in 2013.   To summarize what we found then...

The couple who founded two Caribbean medical schools which catered almost entirely to US and Canadian students ran into significant legal trouble.  Founder David Leon Fredrick and his wife, Dr Patricia Lynn Hough were indicted for tax evasion for failing to report income from the two medical schools they allegedly owned, and later sold.

The schools were Saba University School of Medicine, on Saba, and the Medical University of the Americas, on Nevis.  The initial legal proceedings revealed that while Saba University School of Medicine was apparently first set up by a non-profit foundation (or NGO) run by the couple, somehow it became for-profit owned by Mr Fredrick and Dr Hough, and Saba and the Medical University of the Americas were subsequently sold to a private equity group, Equinox Capital.  R3 Education Inc, owned by Equinox Capital, appears to have been given responsibility for running the schools, along with St Matthew University.

Before jury selection started, Mr Fredrick disappeared.  Dr Hough was eventually convicted of defrauding the US Internal Revenue Service, and income tax evasion, after trial testimony to the effect that the couple concealed money in a Swiss bank, got $36 million from the sale of the schools, and bought an airplane, two houses, and a condominium.

Left mysterious at that time were Mr Fredrick's whereabouts, where the money that the couple received from the sale of the medical schools went, and how a school that began as a non-profit organization run by the couple became a for-profit corporation owned by them.  The case should have lead to some concerns about the leadership and governance of the off-shore medical schools that now train increasing numbers of would be US and Canadian physicians.

In 2014 we provided something of an update. Mr Fredrick and Ms Hough made more than $35 million from the sale of the schools.  Ms Hough eventually went to prison.  Mr Fredrick's whereabouts remained unknown.  My internet searching in 2019 failed to produce any new information about him.


Now in 2019 we do not know much more about who is really accountable for MUA and SUSOM.  According to the Bloomberg corporate information website,

R3 Education Inc. operates as a holding company that acquires and manages for-profit educational institutions such as Saba University School of Medicine, the Medical University of the Americas, and St. Matthew's University. The company was incorporated in 2007 and is based in Devens, Massachusetts.

According to his LinkedIn Profile, the CEO and Chairman of R3 Education is Steven Rodger, of Greenwich, CT. For 23 years he has also been Managing Partner, Equinox Capital.

The Equinox Capital website make it clear that it still owns three Caribbean medical schools:

Saba University: Since its founding in 1993, more than 1,500 physicians have earned their M.D. at Saba University (www.saba.edu). Saba University School of Medicine has been accredited by the Accreditation Commission on Colleges of Medicine (ACCM) and its program has received approvals from licensing boards in New York, California and Florida. The campus is on Saba, which is located very near St. Maarten.

Medical University of the Americas: Since its founding 1998, Medical University of the Americas (www.mua.edu) has awarded approximately 500 M.D.’s. The MUA program is accredited by the Accreditation Commission on Colleges of Medicine (ACCM) and its program has received approvals from the licensing board in New York. MUA is located on Nevis, near St. Kitts.

St. Matthew’s University (www.stmatthews.edu) offers both a medical and a veterinary program. Since 1997, almost 1,500 students have obtained their M.D. and D.V.M. degrees from St. Matthews. The program is accredited by the Accreditation Commission on Colleges of Medicine (ACCM). St. Matthews is located in the Cayman Islands.

Who are the leaders of MUA and SUSOM who are accountable for what happens to their students, including their physical safety?  What allegiance do they owe their for-profit, private equity owners?  Who is responsible for the governance of the schools?  What responsibility does the private equity firm that owns the schools bear? All these questions remain unanswered.

The Perils of Offshore Medical Schools

US and Canadian medical students are promised a lot on the flashy websites (eg for MUA and SUSOM) for offshore medical schools. They may depend more on their medical schools for basics like housing than would students at American and Canadian schools. Yet they end up in physical environments with which they may be unfamiliar, and which may expose them to unexpected perils.

We should not forget that the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 was rationalized by the physical risks to US medical students at St George's University School of Medicine. The school was then a private for-profit owned by its founder Dr Charles R Modica and partners (but now partially owned by a private equity firm, Atlas Partners, per their news release.)   As the New York Times reported at the time, some students

told of bullets crashing through their dormitory rooms, of fears of being taken hostage, of a week of campus confinement under the Government's 'shoot to kill' curfew, of soldiers pointing guns at them

In particular,

Many of the students said that supplies of food and water began running low Tuesday after a weeklong curfew had been imposed by Grenada's military leaders following the slaying of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop on Oct. 19. Under the terms of the curfew, people on the street were to be shot on sight, the students said.

'I saw soldiers with guns during the curfew,' said Miss Nelson, 'and while none of them ever threatened me, several of my friends told me guns had been aimed at them, and they were terrified.'


[US Department of Defense image, Grenada invasion, 1983, via WikiMedia]


In the 21st century, the risks may be of gas explosions in accommodations more basic. and risky than students may have expected.    Yet who is ultimately accountable for disclosing and mitigating the risks?  In the case of MUA and SUSOM I cannot tell.

For would-be medical students trying to cope with the vagaries of medical school admissions in the US and Canada, the apparently easier accessibility of off-shore medical schools may be attractive.  Yet such accessibility may come with costs, and risks.  Until more is known about the risks, caveat emptor.


While Eckhert wrote in 2010(1) that the increasing presence of offshore medical graduates in the US "obligates U.S. medicine to take a closer look at these educational programs," no such scrutiny has occurred since then.  While offshore medical schools account for the training of an increasing proportion of US (and presumably Canadian) physicians, we know next to nothing about their leadership and governance.  This seems to be just another part of the decreasing accountability of the leadership of US health care, and the increasing opacity of the governance and stewardship of US health care organizations.  True US health care reform would make leadership transparent and accountable.

 Reference

1.  Eckhert NL.  Private schools of the Caribbean: outsourcing medical education.  Acad Med 2010; 85: 622-630.  Link here.