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West Penn Allegheny gets medical school

Saturday, June 11, 2011

West Penn Allegheny Health System leaders expressed optimism on Friday about their partnership prospects with Highmark Inc. as they announced plans with Temple University to establish a four-year medical school campus in the North Side.

"We're still talking (with Highmark)," said attorney David L. McClenahan, chairman of West Penn Allegheny's board in an interview with the Tribune-Review at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. "It's better than not talking."

McClenahan's comments came after a press conference in which West Penn Allegheny officials announced a partnership with Temple's School of Medicine to open a four-year medical program at Four Allegheny Center near the health system's flagship Allegheny General Hospital.

"This partnership is a great way to forge a healthy future for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania," said Anne Weaver Hart, Temple University president.

Dr. Christopher Olivia, West Penn Allegheny's president and CEO, told reporters that the system would not have undertaken the medical school if he didn't think there was a chance for financial stability. The system, which last year lost $90 million and has lost $49 million this fiscal year, will invest $10 million in the medical school, he said.

"I want the story today to be the medical school," Olivia said. "People have been writing about our demise for a long time ... and we're here, and we're growing, and we will be for a long, long time."

About 30 students will be accepted into the medical school's first class, a number that could grow to 50 within five years, Olivia said. The first class is expected to start school in August 2013. West Penn Allegheny and Temple officials cited a shortage of physicians as a reason for opening the school, which will be the second in the region in addition to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

A renovation of Four Allegheny Center, where West Penn Allegheny has offices, will begin this summer to prepare about 40,000 square feet for classrooms and laboratories. Allegheny General will serve as the major clinical academic site.

Temple's Hart said the School of Medicine last year admitted 180 students. With the Pittsburgh campus and another one in Bethlehem, the school expects to enroll 240 students by 2014. By contrast, Pitt anticipates its 2011 class will enroll 148 medical students, a spokeswoman said.

West Penn Allegheny is in discussions about a potential collaboration with Highmark that could infuse as much as $500 million into the region's struggling No. 2 hospital network, though the topic was largely off limits at the event attended by hundreds of local dignitaries and area health care officials. Officials at Highmark, the region's largest insurer, could not be reached for comment.

"I'm very optimistic that it's going to happen," Dr. Tony Farah, chief medical officer at Allegheny General and a former West Penn Allegheny board member, told the Trib.

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