Wyoming has a shortage of doctors and no medical school. So Ross University, a for-profit medical school on the Caribbean island of Dominica, thought it had found a perfect place for a new campus far from the tropics.
The university’s 80-year-old founder, Robert Ross, proposed to spend $25 million on opening a medical school just outside Casper and announced plans to start classes next spring. Local economic development officials, looking to end their city’s dependence on the lagging oil industry, were delighted.
But the venture could be in critical condition.
Ross University would be the first for-profit medical school on U.S. soil in 90 years. And resistance to for-profit medical schools runs high in the United States.
The national accrediting agency for medical schools has refused to consider Ross’ project. If a medical school is not accredited, its students cannot get federal loans, and states might refuse to license its graduates.
A medical school in Uganda recently delayed plans to build a branch campus in Washington state because of the accreditation hurdle.
Dr. Jerry Behrens, a Casper surgeon, said he is opposed to for-profit medical schools because “the criteria to get into the school is a check that won’t bounce.”
For-profit medical schools in the United States closed or became nonprofit institutions early in the 20th century after medical reformers concluded that for-profit schools might be cutting corners or lowering their standards for financial reasons. Since then, no American accreditation agencies have approved a for-profit medical school.
“If you were about to lay on an operating table with a scalpel about to invade your body, I would think you would want to know whether the doctor operating on you got a good education,” said Dr. John Nelson of Salt Lake City, a member of the American Medical Assn. board of directors.
Although construction on the Casper campus has been pushed back from September to January, Ross said he is not giving up on his investment. Ross, a New Yorker who made millions selling petroleum, grain, semiconductors and other products but is not a physician, calls himself a “revolutionist” against the medical establishment.
“There’s a lot of hostility out there,” he said. “I feel sorry for them, picking on an old man.”
He has enlisted the help of Wyoming’s congressional delegation and received support from Gov. Jim Geringer.
Ross University, nestled amid tropical blue waters and dense rain forests in Dominica, is one of about 20 or so for-profit medical schools that have sprung up in the Caribbean, Mexico and elsewhere to cater to students rejected by American schools.
It boasts more than 2,500 graduates licensed and practicing in the United States. The school says 92% of its students passed their U.S. basic-level tests on their first try last September--slightly higher than the U.S. and Canadian average.
When Ross considered opening a for-profit campus in the United States, he looked at five states without medical schools before settling on Casper, a city of 47,000 people.
Neal Simon, the university’s president, said Casper was chosen because a Ross faculty member once practiced medicine here and knew of the state’s need for doctors. Wyoming ranks 46th in the nation in availability of physicians, with one doctor for every 642 people. Nationwide, there is one doctor for every 441 people.
The Casper campus would train students in most of their first two years of basic science. Then Ross would fly them to Dominica to finish their studies.
The nation’s medical school accrediting agency, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, rejected Ross’ request for accreditation, saying the agency looks only at full, four-year programs. But Ross said he thinks the agency is biased against for-profit schools.
Many in Casper like the idea that Ross promises to bring in 1,000 students and create 200 jobs with a $9 million to $10 million payroll.
George Howley, director of the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance, said that doctors opposed to the project are worried about competition, not the quality of medical care.
“To protect the income to the doctors is what it is,” he said.
In the meantime, people like Jim Campbell are watching closely.
Campbell, 21, is a junior college student in Casper who waits on tables and repairs natural gas lines for a living. He dreams of being a surgeon.
But his grade point average was just 0.5 in his first semester at Casper College. Now that he is getting nearly straight A’s, he might need a school like Ross that could give him a second chance.
“Every day I’m thinking about it, the fact that I’m one day closer to getting there, one day closer to reaching my goal,” he said.