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Failed medical school spoils students' dreams

| Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010

Mark Casey Phillips desperately wants to follow in his late father's footsteps and become a pharmacist so he can take over his family's thriving Extended Care Pharmacy in Palatka, Fla.

Last summer, Phillips, 33, jumped at the prospect of a quick degree from a Latrobe man's Caribbean school because he has been paying a pharmacist to fill prescriptions since his father's 2007 cancer death. Now, Phillips says he has squandered $135,000 in a foolish attempt to take a shortcut via a distance learning program offered by St. Theresa's Medical University in St. Kitts.

"I got a degree, and I can wipe my (expletive) with it," Phillips said. "It's sitting behind my office door."

Phillips and other former students of the school operated by Thomas M. Uhrin say they spent thousands of dollars on medical and pharmaceutical studies but were left with nothing but incomplete transcripts, bogus degrees, debt and heartache when Uhrin shut it down several months ago to concentrate on an educational investment opportunity with his partner, Jeffrey T. Irwin, also of Latrobe.

Uhrin, 46, conceded that the situation is unfortunate for students who placed their trust in his school. He said the economic turndown caused the school's demise and ended plans to expand abroad in Sri Lanka and Italy.

"There's nothing left. It all fell apart. I, myself, can't pay my bills, and I am looking for work," he said.

Trail of troubles

Uhrin first gained media attention in 1999 while working as medical director for a Greensburg clinic even though he never completed medical training and was not a licensed physician. He left the clinic after stories published in connection with a Tribune-Review investigation revealed he was holding himself out to be a doctor.

In 2005, he opened the for-profit school in St. Kitts, an island more than 2,000 miles away from its U.S. headquarters. A handful of employees worked at 1708 Ligonier St., Latrobe, in a residence owned by Mark and Gwen Yokopenic, respectively, the school's director of information technology and senior admissions officer/associate registrar.

Uhrin served as chancellor and executive dean of the school, where only a dozen or so students attended classes each semester in a small ranch home in Basseterre, the island's capital. Tribune-Review stories published in 2007 revealed that the St. Kitts government was investigating Uhrin's credentials amid student complaints.

Former students said they endured verbal abuse from Uhrin and Irwin, 45, a registered nurse who served as the school's president. Students said they learned under unsafe conditions and witnessed improper treatment of cadavers and disposal of medical waste.

Government officials would not disclose results of the investigation there. The financially struggling school shut its doors to the "eight or 10" remaining students several months ago, Uhrin said.

Uhrin said school records, student files and ownership shares were given to a board member, St. Kitts attorney Vernon Viera, with the hope that it could someday be revived. A woman who answered Viera's law office phone in mid-December said he is "out until sometime in January" and declined to take a message from a reporter.

The island's education secretary, Osmond Petty, declined to discuss former students, employees or the school's future.

Dr. John Prescott, chief academic officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said students considering an offshore medical school should check out faculty qualifications, accreditation and rates of acceptance and graduation.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true," Prescott said. "There will be many challenges to individuals who go to Caribbean schools who are looking to practice in the U.S."

No money

Uhrin said the university's dozen or so employees in Latrobe and St. Kitts were permanently laid off when it closed.

Nicole Howard, 32, of Latrobe worked as the school's admissions coordinator/clinical coordinator from April to August before she was let go. She said some of her final duties were to pack boxes of files to be sent to St. Kitts.

One file -- for Phillips -- was kept in the United States after Phillips drove from Florida to Latrobe with a hefty tuition payment, Howard said. She described the money as "more cash than I'd ever seen in my life."

Phillips' diploma then was printed at a Latrobe printing firm even though he had not completed his studies as the school was closing, she said.

"I met him. I shook his hand. I felt so bad for him," she said.

Howard said her job included answering phone calls from angry, frustrated students and their parents. When they called, she was instructed by her supervisors to take messages because "no one would talk to anyone," she said.

Canadian resident Mary Bifna, frustrated and furious at Uhrin and school officials, said she was among the frequent callers to the Latrobe office. Bifna said she sent $12,500 in March to Uhrin for pharmacy school tuition for her son, Christopher, 24.

Within days, she wanted her money back.

"Gwen (Yokopenic) rushed us to get $12,500 sent to a bank in Pennsylvania. We sent the money and then we found out the school was a fake," she said. "We asked for a refund and kept calling and calling, but no one would talk to us."

Bifna went to police in Toronto, but learned that they could not help her here, she said. She added that her family is considering legal action against Uhrin and the school.

Whether students have any legal recourse to get their money back is questionable, according to a former federal prosecutor.

"It depends upon what the students were told," said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Stallings, who returned to private practice in Pittsburgh in July 2008. "If he misrepresented to potential students that they could actually receive a pharmacy or medical education and then took their money knowing that he would not deliver, that's fraud. But if there was no intent to deceive them, it's not a crime."

He said, "There are businesses that legitimately fail."

Stallings said parties who paid tuition and did not receive the education they paid for may be able to pursue civil actions for breach of contract, depending upon their individual situation.

When asked to discuss her role in the school and its closing, Gwen Yokopenic said, "I absolutely think not," and hung up the phone on a reporter. Irwin also declined to comment.

Uhrin said he does not recall anything about Christopher Bifna and has no access to school records on the island, where government officials said the school lost its accreditation. However, he remembered Phillips and admitted accepting $135,000 in cash from Phillips for a full tuition payment in advance for pharmaceutical studies.

He explained that Phillips' diploma, as those of other students, would have been printed and "held in escrow" until their studies were completed. He said he does not know why Phillips received a degree.

Dashed futures

Phillips and other former students admit that they enrolled in St. Theresa's because they could not get into U.S. schools for various reasons, including lack of available openings, poor grades, test scores and impatience.

Dr. J. James Rohack, president of the American Medical Association, said it's unfortunate that they invested time and money in the new, for-profit school that had no track record for placing graduates in post-graduate training slots in the United States.

"Unfortunately, some of the for-profit schools may not provide the level of education that students need to be successful," Rohack said. "Because they were attending a nonaccredited school outside the United States, their ability to have their time and credits accepted here is slim and none."

In November, Phillips received a letter from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy informing him that he is ineligible for certification as a foreign pharmacy school graduate and cannot sit for Florida's licensing exam. The letter cites deficiencies with his application, transcript and diploma from an unaccredited school.

Phillips said Uhrin led him to believe that a combination of the course work he completed at a community college in the United States, some credits from the American University of Antigua and the online courses at St. Theresa's Medical University would qualify him for a pharmacy degree and license.

"He (Uhrin) was supposed to help me take the test and get my degree patriated to the U.S.," Phillips said. "I guess you could call it buying a degree, but if I would have had the time to do it the right way, I would have. I trusted him."

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