Papers hint at MCG expansion

It appears a long-awaited report on expanding the Medical College of Georgia will recommend expansion in Augusta, Athens and possibly three other sites in the state, according to internal documents obtained by The Augusta Chronicle.

The consulting firm that is preparing the report, Tripp Umbach, is also asking to be paid $250,000 during the next several months to help sell it.

The consultant and MCG President Daniel W. Rahn are scheduled to present recommendations Tuesday to the University System of Georgia Board of Regents on expanding medical education in Georgia.

The idea of creating a satellite campus of MCG's School of Medicine in Athens in conjunction with the University of Georgia was first broached last year in a budget request from Gov. Sonny Perdue, who asked for $3.8 million to help plan it. A year earlier, Chancellor Erroll B. Davis denied to The Chronicle that there were any plans for a medical school in Athens.

Mr. Perdue's request ignited a storm of protest from Augusta legislators and civic leaders who feared eventually losing one of Augusta's largest employers to the state's largest school. A legislative compromise resulted in the planning money being awarded to look at expansion in Athens, Augusta and elsewhere. Tripp Umbach, a nationally known consulting firm that has worked on other medical school expansions, was hired for $332,000 in September. The House Medical Education Study Committee, led by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, also held hearings on the issue in the past few months.

According to e-mails and documents obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act, MCG and UGA officials have been meeting continuously to plan for expansion while the study committee and the consultant were at work.

The "MCG/UGA Medical Initiative" met from Oct. 3-5 in Athens and Augusta, according to the agenda, which included briefing Tripp Umbach and attending one of the House medical education study committee hearings in Augusta. The "MCG/UGA Planning Committee" was scheduled to meet in November and December, according to e-mails, and MCG School of Medicine Dean D. Douglas Miller has held weekly "Expansion Team" meetings in his office in Augusta.

Through a spokeswoman, Dr. Miller refused a request for an interview. Consultant Paul Umbach also did not return calls seeking comment.

In its "Medical School Expansion Study," Tripp Umbach lists among the study objectives "assess the feasibility of expanding the School of Medicine in other locations within Georgia, to include at least Augusta and Athens. Tripp Umbach will also evaluate three additional sites."

There is no specific mention of which additional sites, but the consultants traveled to Albany, Savannah, Athens and Rome and met with MCG alumni in Atlanta. MCG already has a clinical campus in Albany and is looking to establish one in Savannah.

The invitation list for a "Strategic Communications Meeting" in early December in Madison included public relations staff from MCG and UGA, the Board of Regents and the Atlanta public relations firm Boyette Levy. That meeting agenda included a chart that outlined having specific messages for audiences in Augusta, Athens, Albany, Savannah, Atlanta, statewide and nationally.

In an addendum to one of its original proposals dated Sept. 2, Tripp Umbach proposed a $1,500-a-day fee for "presentations and public relations as needed" from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2008.

In a Nov. 28 report entitled, "A Proposal to Provide Ongoing Communications Support to Medical College of Georgia for Medical College of Georgia's Expansion Study," Tripp Umbach proposed working with Boyette Levy so the expansion report is "reaching the right targets with the right message." This includes promoting the final report and Mr. Umbach "to select media," having Mr. Umbach deliver a minimum of 12 speeches to "key audiences," having Boyette Levy ghostwrite guest editorials that would be attributed to Mr. Umbach and Dr. Rahn, conducting "media training" and "facilitating crisis communications." The fee for these services, from December through June 30, would be $250,000.

Parts of the report were previewed for Mr. Davis, and Dr. Rahn provided an update to the Regents at a strategic retreat earlier this month. But Regents spokesman John Millsaps said the board was taking pains to preserve its objectivity before the report's first public presentation Tuesday.

"That will be the first chance the Regents have to really engage the consultant and ask questions," he said. "They didn't want this to be seen as anyone driving anything."

Tripp Umbach also did an economic analysis of MCG in Augusta that said in 2005 MCG accounted for $735 million and directly or indirectly provided 6,930 jobs. It projected that would grow to $896 million and more than 8,000 jobs by 2015. The report will evidently be provided in a color brochure.

A Dec. 3 e-mail from Annie Hunt Burriss, a recently hired special assistant to Dr. Rahn who is based in Atlanta, noted that Dr. Rahn is concerned about the "rollout" for the brochure.

"He was fine with (the) idea that his team will develop a distribution plan as part of MCG's strategic communications plan," she wrote.

Dr. Rahn was also offered a chance to comment but declined.

"Dr. Rahn and Dr. Miller will be happy to talk about the report after the report is presented on Tuesday," MCG spokeswoman Jennifer Hilliard said.

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

WHAT'S NEXT

Consulting firm Tripp Umbach and MCG President Daniel W. Rahn are scheduled to present a plan Tuesday on expanding medical education in Georgia.