Sturm is brewing over the resignation of the president of the U.S. military medical school

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A growing chorus of supporters of the U.S. military’s medical school are questioning the decision not to renew the current president’s contract and expressing concerns about the temporary detachment – a man allegedly involved in the Pentagon’s efforts to run the facility close.

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences President Richard Thomas announced last week that he plans to step down on July 19.

In a July 14 letter to the faculty and school staff, Thomas said he wanted to stay at his place of work, but “had not yet learned anything from the secretary.” [Lloyd] Austin on his decision to renew my contract “is due to end on July 25th.

Thomas said he needed to ensure a “smooth transition” to ensure the school’s reaccreditation process and ease of handover and appointed the school’s senior vice president, Dr. William Roberts, as Interim President.

But shortly after Thomas sent his announcement to the members of the USU faculty, the acting Deputy Minister of Defense for Health Affairs appointed Dr. Terry Adirim the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Preparedness Dr. David Smith as interim president, adding that Smith will lead the search for a new president.

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“[Smith] is a humble servant leader and a hero of military medicine, “Adirim said in an undated memo received by Military.com.

Smith’s election has raised concerns about the future of the university as he has spent much of his career first in the Navy and then as a civilian in the Department of Defense, researching small hospitals and analyzing how to reduce the size of military medicine.

Smith was instrumental in restructuring military clinics and hospitals to focus on serving military personnel while directing more civilian benefit recipients to Tricare.

“We have generally found that our contracts often make our online supply cheaper,” he said during a round table in February 2020 about planned changes to downsize or close almost 50 military facilities.

His work, according to DoD officials familiar with his office, played a vital role in the Pentagon’s cost assessment and program evaluation of the facility, which recommended the medical school’s closure in 2019.

“He was actively involved in all the cut and runs at the university,” a senior university official who asked for anonymity in retaliation concerns told Military.com.

A Department of Defense spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Smith about the change in leadership and his plans for the school.

“It has an agenda,” said Thomasine Ilyas Alvarez, president of the nonprofit Friends of USU Inc. and wife of the retired Navy Commander. Everett Alvarez, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, of efforts to evict Thomas, “and it marks the beginning of the university’s closure”.

In a statement to Military.com on Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said there were no plans to renew Thomas’ five-year contract.

“The department has decided to withdraw the contract from Dr. Thomas not to renew, ”Kirby wrote in an email. “We thank him for his work and service to our country and the department. We are now working to ensure a successful transition from Uniformed Services University to the interim leadership as a search committee for the next president will be formed and announced shortly.” . “

The rift between Thomas – a retired two-star Army general who was once the deputy director of the Defense Health Agency – and the Department of Defense began under the Trump administration when Thomas fought off proposals to cut the school budget or shut it down.

In February 2019, Thomas spoke out against a proposal by the DoD to cut around 17,000 medical blocks, which he believes would affect the medical supply of the services and negatively impact the university, which provides a pipeline of medical personnel to the military health system represents.

In the fall of 2019, when the DoD’s cost and program evaluation recommended the office to make significant cuts to school programs that would mean a 30% reduction in university operations and a 34% reduction in research, Thomas penned a letter saying, that the office used inaccurate data to do its recommendations, saying the result would lead to the university’s closure.

Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper opposed the school closure proposal but backed cuts as part of a $ 2.2 billion effort to slash the military health system budget, including cutting all research funding to care for victims in the Fight and cuts to infectious disease research.

After Esper was fired in the waning days of the Trump administration, DoD officials increased pressure to oust Thomas, citing his misappropriation of disciplinary action against a subordinate former medical dean Dr. Arthur Kellerman, who disclosed the personal information of an associate faculty member who was found to have plagiarized several research papers and who was subsequently fired before Thomas was named president of the school.

The story about faculty member Dr. Eric Noji and Kellerman’s involvement in attempting to fire him from multiple medical organizations, was published by the New York Times in 2018.

Then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Thomas McCaffery, signed a proposal to remove Thomas on December 17. Thomas was given the opportunity to defend himself on January 11, but that meeting was postponed to February after Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen wrote to then Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller asking him to review the case.

“His dismissal at this point appears to be in retaliation for his advocacy of military medicine,” the senators wrote.

The Senators have continued their efforts to keep Thomas on the Pentagon’s payroll. On July 8, they wrote a letter to Austin with Maryland MP David Trone, also a Democrat, asking Austin to reconsider Thomas’s contract.

“We acknowledge that Dr. Thomas made tough decisions throughout his tenure as USU President,” they wrote. “He was a strong advocate of USU, DoD biomedical research, and the entire MHS Murtha Cancer Center in the previous administration.”

Eleven officers general also took up Thomas’ case.

In a June 25 letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley, retired military leaders, including former Army Chief of Staff General Carl Vuono and five former vice chiefs Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, joined the Obama administration urging him to inform Austin of Thomas’ upcoming departure.

“Last December, the Board of Regents unanimously and enthusiastically supported the reappointment of Thomas,” they wrote. “Since then, this lawsuit has been in the offices of the Assistant Secretary of State for Health Affairs and has not been referred to the Secretary for decision,” they wrote.

“We respectfully ask you to raise this matter with Secretary Austin so that he can personally speak about the reappointment of Dr. Thomas and the future of the university to decide, ”the letter continues.

USU was founded in 1972 to address a nationwide doctor shortage that has increased sharply since then and disproportionately affects the US military, offering doctors bonuses and incentives, but paying them well below what can be earned in the private sector.

Common reasons for cuts include budget size and cost per student. According to the Institute of Defense Analyzes, the school has a higher cost of enrollment than civilian schools: it takes about $ 1 million to train, house, and support a military doctor at USUHS, versus $ 400,000 for a medical school scholarship .

The leadership crisis at the university comes at a time when the 50-year-old school lacks a board of directors and is preparing for reaccreditation – an elaborate process in which it has to certify the fulfillment of certain educational and administrative standards.

The Board of Regents, which wholeheartedly supported Thomas’s contract renewal, was disbanded as part of Austin’s overall effort to review 42 Pentagon advisory boards. Shortly after taking office, Austin announced a withdrawal of all boards while the Pentagon conducted a “zero-based review” to ensure that advisory boards supported the work of the department and national defense strategy.

In addition, Austin’s decision effectively eliminated all short-term ally appointments to the Trump administration on powerful bodies such as the Defense Business Board, Defense Policy Board, and the US Air Force Academy’s Board of Visitors.

Agreements with all honorary board members, including the rulers of the university, were terminated.

Alvarez said having a board of directors was an accreditation problem and the school could face parole or other punishment for lacking such a board.

Likewise, the accreditation bodies are not interested in seeing controversy or disruption that appears to be “political manipulation,” she added.

“The process they use to do this is not a good one and it can affect accreditation and that could affect the school’s recruitment,” she said.

Alvarez and others who spoke to Military.com in the background also expressed concern that Adirim, who is acting in the role of assistant secretary and has not been nominated or confirmed for permanent, does not have the authority to appoint an interim president – a privilege according to the law this can only be granted by the defense minister.

Thomas declined to comment on the record of the controversy, but said he would like to see the opportunity to keep his job.

“I have not resigned. I am not resigning. My term is expiring,” he said by phone.

– Patricia Kime can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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