The University of Tennessee may have abandoned tens of millions of dollars over the next decade from a proposed partnership that it is no longer pursuing with a proton therapy center in West Knoxville because of legislative and financial challenges associated with it, reports the News Sentinel.
The proposal, which was strongly backed by key university officials, called for using the additional revenues generated to fund new academic and research programs and facilities that were considered a step toward becoming a top 25 public research institution, according to documents obtained by the News Sentinel through a public records request.
The university dropped its legislative efforts in March, a month after a bill was filed by Sens. Randy McNally and Doug Overbey, ending a two-year effort to affiliate itself with Provision Center for Proton Therapy, much like how the University of Florida has partnered with a proton therapy center in Jacksonville, Fla. (Note: The legislature’s website shows Overbey as prime sponsor of the bill, SB1194, with Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, as House sponsor. It has not been withdrawn, the website shows, but was never moved in the Senate and taken off notice in the House.)
… While the university was projected to receive a minimum total financial benefit of $80 million in 2023 that could reach more than $180 million, questions were raised about the financial risk to the university, and ultimately to the state of Tennessee, as well as uncertainty about lower reimbursement rates and effectiveness of the treatment.
Among those with concerns were McNally — chairman of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee — and local health care officials.
“Even if it benefited the university, there were philosophical differences,” UT President Joe DiPietro said in an interview, noting that various people were sympathetic to McNally’s concern about using taxpayer dollars to benefit a private enterprise.
McNally worried the public-private partnership would put the university and state at too great of a risk and potentially compete with local health care providers. It also would set a precedent for other schools, while allowing the center to cherry pick the best patients with private insurance.
“I might be pessimistic when it comes to those projects, but the state would have taken a lot of risk through the university. We found that out with Hemlock. It has not performed like it had promised,” McNally said in an interview, referring to Hemlock Semiconductor in Clarksville that received some $130 million in state and local incentives and announced last month plans to lay off 300 of its 400 workers and shut down its facility.
“I can’t say that I’m right on this, but I felt it was a risk to the state that it didn’t need to be taking,” he added. “I couldn’t tell you with everything the return would justify the risk. It was something new the state hadn’t gotten into and would open itself up for others.”
Proton therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses a beam of protons to more precisely irradiate tumors without harming surrounding tissue and reducing treatment-related side effects. Local businessman Terry Douglass has spearheaded the development of the proton therapy center currently under construction in Dowell Springs as part of a comprehensive clinical outpatient health care center.
… DiPietro said in the interview that McNally wasn’t the only person to express concern over the proposal, though he declined to say who the others were.
Douglass conveyed his frustration over the lack of progress to university officials in December, questioning why McNally’s “nonissues” took precedence over the benefits of the legislation.
“Why is it that one or two individuals can defeat something that is potentially so good for UT, our community and our state?” Douglass wrote in an email to DiPietro, Executive Vice President David Millhorn, lobbyist Anthony Haynes and Chancellor Jimmy Cheek. “I have been around long enough to know that when one door closes a better one opens. I just hate to see this door close for UT.”
… McNally brushed off any notion that he was the reason behind the university’s decision.
“It did concern me, but I’m one of 33 senators. I wouldn’t think that it was anything that I had to do with. I think it was a decision made by the university,” said McNally, who last year sponsored the original bill, which didn’t move forward.
McNally said he didn’t discuss the latest bill with its sponsors or any of his legislative peers, though he did talk with local health care officials, who questioned the university’s role in a business that also provided traditional radiation therapy services.
Covenant Health has been in a dispute with Provision over its radiation therapy center, which received a Certificate of Need in December 2011. Covenant declined to comment for this story, citing its ongoing appeal.
McNally works for Cardinal Health, which runs the pharmacy program at Methodist Medical Center, a Covenant Health hospital. McNally’s wife, Jan, retired as a Covenant executive in December.