A crowd of about 250 gathered on a cold, damp and muddy Tuesday morning (March 3) to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for $32.4 million Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine. The event morphed into a quasi-pep rally with a hint of a tent revival.
The new college, first announced in December 2013. is part of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education to be based at Chaffee Crossing (Fort Smith).
The osteopathic school will be housed in a three story, 102,000-square-foot building valued at more than $32 million. A fully operational osteopathic college is expected to serve about 600 students, and employ around 65 (full-time equivalent jobs) with an average salary of $103,000. That impact does not include adjunct professors that will be needed for the school. The school is located on Chaffee Crossing land (200 acres) donated by the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority.
Construction pads are finished on 27 acres in preparation for present and future construction, and the college has hired 13 employees, including senior staff.
Revenue from the 2009 purchase of Fort Smith-based Sparks Health System is being used to build and operate the planned college. When Naples, Fla.-based Health Management Associates (HMA) acquired Sparks in a deal valued at $138 million, part of the money was used to create the Fort Smith Regional Healthcare Foundation, which became The Degen Foundation.
MOVING THE ECONOMIC NEEDLE
John Taylor, board chairman of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education and a former board member of Sparks Health System before it was acquired by HMA, said at the groundbreaking that the new college and its potential emerged from what was once dire financial circumstances at Sparks. He told the crowd that the hospital in 2008 and 2009 was “staring straight into the face of insolvency,” and struggling to recover in a regional economy that had suffered “devastating blows” from jobs losses in the manufacturing sector and other areas.
Indeed, the number of employed in the metro area in December (118,635) is down 10.8% compared to the high of 133,061 in June 2006 – or 14,426 fewer jobs than the peak metro employment.
Continuing, Taylor said many people gave up on Fort Smith and he admitted a resentment for those who did so – specifically citing the television stations who moved their news operations to Northwest Arkansas. Taylor’s admonition drew laughter and applause from the crowd.
But he said the Sparks board pushed through and was able to secure a deal that, while resulting in the loss of local control of a hospital, saved the hospital system, saved jobs and resulted in the $60 million pool of funds that has helped birth the osteopathic college.
As he and many others have in the previous remarks, Taylor again credited former Sparks board member Jim Walcott for challenging the board to do something big with the $60 million. Taylor reminded the crowd that Walcott did not want to “nibble around the edges,” argued that the board “move the needle.”
“And now things look a lot different than they did five-and-a-half years ago,” Taylor said, adding that the new school and future additions will “change the diversity of our economic portfolio” in the Fort Smith region.
Pressing that point, Taylor said the osteopathic college completion is not the end of the vision. With a nod in advance to his bad grammar, he said the community should know that “It ain’t done yet,” when the osteopathic college is up and open.
HELPING WITH A ‘MEDICAL CRISIS’
Kyle Parker, president and CEO of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, praised a long list of individuals and organizations who made the college possible. He read a quote from the Degen Foundation website: “We have all drunk from wells we did not dig; we have been warmed by fires we did not build; we have sat in the shade of trees we did not plant; we are where we are because of what someone else did.”
In his remarks after Parker spoke, Taylor continued this theme, saying the college is “the effort of many” and not just a few people or a few boards. And in citing all the things that had to happen for the college to be a reality, Taylor also claimed the hand of Providence rather than believe in coincidence.
Parker has also said new college will help alleviate the U.S. physician shortage. He said there are about 3,000 applications for every opening in U.S. medical schools. He also said the country will have to produce more doctors to push back against a possible shortage of 140,000 doctors by 2030. That number could rise to 250,000 if the federal Affordable Health Care Act if fully implemented.
“We have a medical crisis on our hands,” Parker told the crowd, adding that the 150 students who will soon graduate each year will make a “small dent” in the problem, and that he hopes to “keep them all in the state of Arkansas.”
In addition to hospitals and clinics in the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas areas agreeing to support the college with residency programs, Parker said Tuesday that other hospitals in Arkansas signing on include Baptist Hospital in Little Rock, St. Vincent in Little Rock, and the White River Health System based in Batesville.
Taylor also said the osteopathic college will improve the quality of life in the region. He said more than 40 years ago when he first moved to Fort Smith the region was a “medical mecca,” but has lost its leadership in the area. The new college, he said, will help rebuild the regional medical sector.