Med school calls for another rescue

In 1983, the U.S. armed forces invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, in part to rescue American students studying at the St. George’s University School of Medicine. Present-day students at the school and two others are now the target of an obscure provision tucked into the budget-reconciliation bill that would cut off their student loans.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) offered the language as part of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s contribution to the massive budget bill. As House and Senate negotiators inch toward a conference agreement on the legislation, the three foreign-based medical schools are furiously working to protect a lucrative stream of federal funding.

According to DeVry Inc., the for-profit education company that owns Ross University School of Medicine on the island of Dominica, St. George’s, Ross and the American University of the Caribbean on St. Maarten provide medical education to more than 3,500 American students who return to the United States after their studies to practice medicine.

According to Sessions, these schools are tantamount to diploma mills that were “created to serve American students who cannot get into American medical schools.”

Americans choose to study in the islands because there are too few open spaces in domestic medical schools to accommodate them, countered Sharon Thomas Parrott, DeVry’s senior vice president for government and regulatory affairs.

Sessions emphasized that he is not trying to target unfairly these Caribbean medical schools but instead wants to transfer the loan money that their students currently receive to students at medical schools on U.S. soil.

“We are working desperately to maintain a strong student-loan program,” Sessions told The Hill. “You need to ask yourself what your priorities are,” he said.

“I’m of the strong view that we need to be thinking about how to improve our own, world-class medical schools,” Sessions said.

Both Sessions and Thomas Parrott cited a looming shortage of doctors in the United States to support their cases.

The American students who study at the Caribbean schools continue their education in residency programs in the United States and must pass American certification exams to practice medicine, Thomas Parrott said.

“We’re about to reduce our healthcare capability” if the language is included in the final bill, she said.

Sessions suggested that the current situation weakens the quality of healthcare in the United States. Because of the shortage of available residents, teaching hospitals are “so desperate to get bodies, they’ll take them from any school.”

He further observed that the for-profit owners of these three Caribbean schools stand to lose a large amount of their tuition if his language is adopted.

“That’s big money to them,” he said.

Thomas Parrot said that more than 90 percent of Ross University’s medical students are American and that about 80 percent of the students receive federal financial aid. The school processed $53 million in federal loans during the 2004-2005 school year, she said.

The legislative language is in flux as the conferees debate the budget bill, Sessions said. House members have made the lion’s share of the objections, he noted. Thomas Parrott identified Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee’s 21st Century Competitiveness Subcommittee, as a supporter of DeVry’s position.

Meanwhile, final action could come as early as today on the appropriations conference report for labor-health and human services, which would slash programs funding the education of doctors and other medical professionals by more than half.