Friday, July 20, 2007

Naming a School of Public Health After a Health Insurance Company: An Idea that Refuses to Die

We previously posted about a proposal to name the new school of public health at the University of Iowa after a local health insurance company. But the faculty roundly rejected the notion of a "Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield College of Public Health," and that seemed to be the end of the idea.

But maybe not. On Inside Higher Ed was a report that the faculty reconsidered.

Earlier this month, professors at the University of Iowa decided that they’d rather not work at the 'Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield College of Public Health' — even if it meant potentially losing a donation of $15 million, which the insurance company’s nonprofit philanthropic arm promptly rescinded.

But it looks like a significant proportion of the university’s faculty members are having second thoughts. At a meeting on Monday morning, they passed another resolution, this time resolving to 'move forward and consider this naming gift at a collegiate faculty meeting early in the [2007-8] academic year.'

Apparently some faculty were happy to shorten the name.

A faculty member who was present at Monday’s meeting said he believed that there was a strategy behind rescinding the offer and then taking the issue back to the faculty. One possibility tossed around, the professor said, is that the insurer would now settle simply for the 'Wellmark College of Public Health,' assuming the faculty could be brought around to the idea. In theory, both parties could argue that the name refers to the foundation and not the insurance company itself.

Meanwhile, there has been a backlash against the faculty's initial rejection of the concept of a Wellmark School of Public Health. According to the Des Moines Register,

Des Moines businessman Marvin Pomerantz, a former president of the Iowa Board of Regents, says the dean of the University of Iowa's College of Public Health should be fired for turning down a $15 million gift from Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance company.

'We need to pay him off and get him out of there,' Pomerantz said of Jim Merchant, who has been dean of the college since it was founded in 1999. Merchant plans to retire next year.

'I think the new president will take care of the dean. He needs to go,' Pomerantz said Wednesday.

Pomerantz, a prominent U of I donor whose name is on a pavilion at University of Iowa Hospitals, resigned last week from a fundraising committee for the public health college after Merchant and the college's faculty members approved a resolution on July 5 stating they did not want the college to be named after Wellmark, Iowa's largest health insurance company.

Meanwhile, it appears that the acting university president has been working on some way to keep the Wellmark school naming alive, again per the Register.

Interim University of Iowa President Gary Fethke played a key role in persuading faculty members in the U of I College of Public Health to reconsider a controversial $15 million gift from the Wellmark Foundation, faculty said this week.

But Fethke presented the idea Monday of dropping 'the Blues' from the name, said faculty members who attended the meeting.

Fethke distributed a mock-up letterhead showing the college's name if it were changed to the Wellmark College of Public Health.

An article in the Iowa City Press-Citizen suggested that part of what is going on has to do with the history of the relationship between Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the University of Iowa.

Pomerantz, a former Wellmark director, and University Hospital Director Emeritus John Colloton, a current Wellmark lead director, approached the Wellmark board for the money, although the offer came from the Wellmark Foundation, a charitable organization created by Wellmark. They were both serving on the public health colleges capital campaign, though Pomerantz has since resigned.

Wellmark CEO John Forsyth, a former regent president who resigned in 2005 in the middle of a contentious contract dispute between UI and Wellmark, withdrew the offer.

All the more reason not to name the school of public health after Wellmark, with or without the "Blues."

In my humble opinion, the switch from "Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield College of Public Health" to "Wellmark College of Public Health" is a distinction without a difference.

Either way, naming a college of public health for a local health insurance company in return for $15 million certainly suggests the appearance of obvious institutional conflict of interest. And the historical ties among some of the university's leadership with Wellmark are all the more reason not to take on this added tie.

The University Regents and top administration ought to sit down and ponder long and hard what the missions of the university and its school of public health ought to be. They ought not to include promoting a local health insurer.


Anonymous said...

It is all about the money. I wonder what impact this will have on the ethics classes taught in all areas of the university?

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...


They teach ethics classes???