MCG stays in Augusta, leaders say

Medical College of Georgia officials and the University System chancellor faced down Augusta officials Friday as they explained a controversial plan to open a satellite medical school campus in Athens, Ga.

And while some were satisfied, others said important questions and concerns about the future of MCG in Augusta remain.

University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll B. Davis tried to make one thing clear to Augusta officials worried about eventually losing MCG to the University of Georgia.

"The Medical College of Georgia is going nowhere," he said. Even so, state Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, later asked him to repeat it.

"The Medical College of Georgia is going to remain in Augusta," he assured her.

UGA officials have made the satellite medical school campus part of their proposal for the Navy Supply Corps School campus, which is to be vacated after 2011.

And UGA President Michael Adams has for years publicly pined for a medical school on his campus.

"I think everybody here is happy with you," Augusta Commissioner Joe Bowles told MCG President Daniel W. Rahn. "It's just the business partner you've chosen in Athens with President Adams. I think that leads to a lot of the concerns here in Augusta, dealing with President Adams and what his ultimate goals are."

The satellite campus is a way to take advantage of the scientific faculty at UGA and to potentially acquire a valuable piece of real estate free, Mr. Davis said. And that would be the most cost-effective place to do it. But he said he could understand the concerns Augusta officials might have about any effort to set up a rival medical school in Athens.

"I can understand that fear quite easily," Mr. Davis said, "the fear of my medical school will wither and that one will prosper. But we don't have that here. We have a satellite campus of MCG."

The university system has invested about $130 million in buildings at MCG over the past few years and $20 million to $30 million more in routine capital expenditures, Mr. Davis said.

"We're investing tons of money in Augusta, and we're investing tons of money because we expect this to be the center of medical planning and execution and research for this state," he said.

Dr. Rahn last year was appointed to Mr. Davis' staff as senior vice chancellor for health and medical programs, and that should assure that Augusta's interests are always represented when those kinds of decisions are made, Mr. Davis said.

And there is no question that the state is facing a growing deficit of health care professionals that will worsen over time, Dr. Rahn said.

The Association of American Medical Colleges has called for a 30 percent increase in medical class sizes by 2015, Dr. Rahn said.

MCG expanded last year from 180 to 190 students, with aspirations to go to 200 on campus. But the classroom where Augusta officials sat Friday has only 200 seats, School of Medicine Dean D. Douglas Miller said. And the educational efforts are hampered by the number of clinical teaching opportunities students can get in Augusta, he said.

Already, more than 20 percent of those rotations are done outside of Augusta in clinics around the state, Dr. Miller said, and that will be the same for the potential 40 MCG medical students a year who go to class in Athens beginning in the fall of 2009.

Everything will still be directed from here, he said. "The heart of the medical school is here."

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver pronounced himself satisfied, particularly if MCG can get funding for a new building for the School of Dentistry that Gov. Sonny Perdue did not include in his budget proposal for next year.

"I have no concerns on MCG picking up and moving," he said. "They're too heavily invested in Augusta."

But state Sen. Ed Tarver, D-Augusta, said officials did not answer his central concern: "That is, whether or not this expansion in some way opens the door for this institution to be taken away piece by piece over a period of time."

That gradual erosion also concerns the chairman of the Augusta legislative delegation, Democratic state Rep. Quincy Murphy.

"Once it begins, how do you stop it?" he asked. "You think about the Augusta National (Golf Club) and MCG. These are two major landmarks in our community, and we want to retain them right here."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.


REACTIONS TO THE MCG ATHENS FORUM

"The chancellor said, 'MCG is going nowhere.' I take him at his word for that. My biggest goal right now is to see that the dental school gets funded and is built in Augusta. ... I'm not scared of a satellite, particularly if we get the dental school built here."

- Mayor Deke Copenhaver

"We're talking about spending millions of taxpayers' dollars to provide the same opportunity we're currently providing in Augusta. Is that the best use of taxpayers' dollars?"

- State Sen. Ed Tarver, D-Augusta

"The main thing is I don't want anybody taking anything away from the Medical College of Georgia of Augusta, Ga. I'd love the expansion to be here. I understand in part, but still I'm here for Augusta. That's what I was elected to do - to take care of our community."

- State Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta

"I really trust what they're saying. I have to. I can't go on anything else but what they're saying. I think they mean well. I really do."

- Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams