WSU medical school hopes to salvage partnership deal with Henry Ford

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
WSU President M. Roy Wilson

Detroit — Wayne State University hopes to restart talks with Henry Ford Health System to expand their medical education partnership after a tentative deal collapsed this weekend.

WSU said in a statement Sunday that it received clarified intentions from the Board of Governors and hoped to resume negotiations with Henry Ford one day after a bipartisan bloc of the university’s governing board told The Detroit News the plan was “dead in the water.”

“Based on this clarification, we believe we have a path forward, and intend to resume negotiations immediately,” Wayne State said in its statement. “We remain optimistic of continuing progress toward a significant expansion of our partnership with Henry Ford.”

At issue is the future of medical education in Detroit and at WSU, which has maintained a prickly partnership with the Detroit Medical Center while working to make Henry Ford its primary partner. Presently, WSU’s medical students train in both health systems and become a key source of new physicians who begin their residencies in Detroit.

The fallout has reached further, however, stressing the relationship between WSU President M. Roy Wilson and at least some members of the board who narrowly approved his contract extension last month.

On Saturday, Dr. Michael Busuito, a Republican member of the WSU governing board, said he and three Democratic members felt the proposed deal with Henry Ford would cede the constitutional control the board has over the Wayne State University School of Medicine to a limited liability company, or LLC, that would have been formed by the new partnership.

“Some of my colleagues and I were not comfortable ceding authority over a public asset to a private LLC,” Busuito wrote. “We were also uncomfortable with a private LLC Board usurping the (board’s) constitutional authority.

“For these reasons, the Leapfrog deal is dead in the water,” he said. “However, I and other colleagues value our relationship with Henry Ford and we have a strong desire to move forward with expanding our affiliation in a meaningful way, using an alternative structure.”

Jack D. Sobel, MD, Dean Distinguished Professor of Medicine, School of Medicine, Wayne State University.

In September, the Henry Ford system and university signed a letter of intent to expand their partnership, the first step in making Henry Ford the primary WSU affiliate for medical science education. Details of the alliance were expected to be released in early 2019.

On Friday, however, faculty union officials said negotiations have been problematic, and cited missteps that it said were necessary to acknowledge for the university to retain its high-research institution status. Wilson responded that the union’s message was riddled with inaccuracies. 

Charlie Parrish, WSU’s faculty union president, sent the letter to bargaining unit members saying the proposed operating agreement between the university and health system included creation of a limited liability entity named the “Henry Ford Health Sciences Center at Wayne State University.”

Parrish stated the LLC would transfer authority from the board of governors to a private board to control functions of the WSU School of Medicine, which university faculty and some governors opposed.

“The administration has recently sent a letter signed by 12 School of Medicine Administrators to the Board of Governors that endorses proposals contained in the letter of intent (except for the LLC),” Parrish wrote. 

The joint Health Sciences Center would have a separate operating and governance structure under the LLC, including a president, board, budget and governing committee, officials said in September.

Wilson and dean of the School of Medicine Jack Sobel responded in a letter Saturday to governors stating Parrish’s letter included false statements, including the suggestion that the LLC would be given “authority to control” functions at the School of Medicine.

“In fact, the (letter of intent) clearly states: ‘WSU will retain the authority for management of the undergraduate medical education, nursing education and other health sciences education enterprises and implementation of related educational initiatives; HFHS will retain the authority for management of the HFHS graduate medical educational enterprise and implementation of related educational initiatives; and WSU will retain the authority for management of the WSU graduate medical educational enterprise and implementation of related educational initiatives,’” Wilson wrote.

Parrish said negotiations between university administration and Henry Ford Health System have been conducted over months primarily by Vice President of Health Affairs David Hefner, who is no longer at the university.

“Few beyond President M. Roy Wilson and Mr. Hefner had knowledge of what was being negotiated until a non-binding Letter of Intent (LOI) between the HFHS and the University was provided to the Board of Governors in December 2018,” Parrish wrote. “When the LOI was given to the WSU Board of Governors, there was a strong reaction by members of the board concerned with the possible usurpation of their constitutional authority.” 

Wilson contended that communication with the university community was freely shared.

“During the process, there were many meetings where information was shared widely and transparently, including key concepts and provisions of the (letter of intent),” Wilson wrote.

Despite Wilson’s letter, the four WSU Board of Governors say the LLC would unconstitutionally hand over the School of Medicine to a private entity.

The four board members — Democrats Sandra Hughes-O’Brien, Dana Thompson, and Dr. Anil Kumar and the Republican, Busuito — joined to share their opinion on the letter of intent and LLC. While they don’t represent a majority of the board, the four-person contingent is enough to block it’s passage through the eight-member board.

“As statewide elected officials we are charged with supervising the university’s assets on behalf of the people. In moving forward, we must work within the parameters that will uphold the constitutional authority over public assets,” Busuito said on behalf of the members, who do not represent the entire WSU Board of Governors.

Busuito said they are waiting to hear back from Henry Ford officials on pursuing alternative methods. 

Henry Ford did not respond to requests for comment this weekend.

The non-binding agreement between the Henry Ford Health System and the university marked the university’s first steps in designating Henry Ford the primary institutional affiliate for the university’s medical, nursing and pharmacy, and health sciences schools. When it was first introduced, officials said the partnership would integrate the organizations’ education, research and patient care resources to enhance the curriculum for aspiring medical professionals and provide innovations in health care.

The agreement would extend the institutions’ partnership. More than 100 Wayne State medical students currently do clinical rotations at Henry Ford Hospital, and Henry Ford’s Bone and Joint Center sits inside Wayne State’s Integrated Biosciences Center.

Wilson also faced criticism from three of the board of governors in December when his contract was up for extension, which was approved 5-3.

Board chair O’Brien and governors Thompson and Busuito voted against the extension. Thompson said she voted against because of issues with the WSU medical school, particularly the uncertainty surrounding ties with the Detroit Medical Center, and the hiring of consultants who “are getting paid millions of dollars but have yielded questionable results.” 

The WSU Physicians Group, a medical group formed by doctors affiliated with the School of Medicine, and the DMC agreed this fall to extend their partnership, under which the group’s doctors provide medical services to seven hospitals and other facilities.

DMC officials said Sunday they have remained in partnership with WSU even as they search for a new primary health care partner.

“The decision by WSU leadership to find a new primary healthcare partner is one that we have respected during this process ... even as we have been planning for a future without WSU,” DMC said in a statement.

“WSU’s negotiations with Henry Ford Health System left the physicians of WSUPG uncertain about their future, and many physicians have left, impacting access to care within our community and the development of new programs. Additionally, WSU leadership has deeply damaged its relationship with University Pediatricians.”

WSU officials rebutted the DMC statement, saying it’s both “unfortunate and inaccurate.”

“Wayne State and the University Physicians Group (UPG) have been working closely together throughout the process of developing the best possible solution for the respective institutions and the community we all serve,” WSU said in a statement Sunday. “The reason UPG is in a weakened and uncertain state today is due to actions directly attributable to Tenet/DMC. Of course, we welcome the continued efforts and collaboration of all parties involved to find the best possible solution for the health of our patients, medical education and research.”

Wilson concluded the letter saying, “Professor Parrish’s letter (references) the ‘heavy responsibility’ borne by the Administration. This is true, and it is a responsibility we accept willingly, with every intention of ensuring the best possible future for our School of Medicine, our health sciences and the university itself. Unfortunately, Professor Parrish’s letter was not helpful in this regard.”
Twitter: @SarahRahal_