Top officials from Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the University at Buffalo will meet with a consultant and the state health commissioner Monday to discuss greater collaboration and possibly even a merger between the cancer center and the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences – a move that Rep. Brian Higgins vows to fight, saying it would destroy Roswell Park’s national standing.
Dr. Donald L. Trump, president and chief executive officer of the cancer center, confirmed that Roswell Park and UB were looking at building a closer relationship.
Asked if the effort would include studying a possible merger, Trump said: “Nothing is off the table.”
Officials in the medical community told The Buffalo News earlier this year that a merger seemed impractical because, for starters, it could not replace lost revenue from the state, which has been cutting back its commitment to Roswell Park for years. Trump said he had not heard specifically about a merger from state officials, but expressed confidence it would be a topic under consideration.
“We agreed to look at every opportunity that would be mutually beneficial,” he said.
But Higgins, one of Congress’ leading advocates for federal cancer research funding, warned that a Roswell Park-UB merger could endanger the hospital’s standing as one of the nation’s 41 federally designated comprehensive cancer centers – a designation that is up for renewal.
“This comes at an awful time,” said Higgins, who added that the National Cancer Institute, which awards that federal designation, “is raising questions about the future of Roswell because of these merger talks.”
Roswell Park was the first federally designated cancer center, and several cancer research breakthroughs – including chemotherapy – started there. Continuing that federal designation is important because much of Roswell Park’s federal research funding depends on it, as does the cancer center’s reputation.
In recent years, though, Roswell Park has been seeking to develop a new business model, especially in light of the Cuomo administration’s 2012 proposal to make the cancer center “operationally independent.” That proposal, which would have ended Roswell Park’s state subsidy of more than $100 million a year, has since been abandoned.
In its place since March of last year has been a behind-the-scenes effort led by Buffalo’s John R. Oshei Foundation to seek ways to improve Roswell Park’s business model, including possibly strengthening its ties with UB.
Oshei has hired Cindrich Consulting of Pittsburgh to manage the study. Robert D. Gioia, president of the Oshei Foundation, said the foundation is primarily funding the study’s cost, which is expected to run between $50,000 and $100,000.
The goal is to develop a sustainable business plan for Roswell Park by January, said Gioia, who downplayed the idea that the effort will result in a merger.
Asked about that possibility, Gioia said, “I think people are chasing ghosts here.”
“We’re urging the participants to work through this process to determine if we can come to a combined resolution and what that resolution might look like,” Gioia said. “We are aware of many, many possibilities.”
The options for UB and Roswell Park include “expanded collaboration and partnerships,” Gioia said.
Citing examples of such collaborations that have worked in metro Buffalo, Gioia cited the Gates Vascular Institute – a partnership of Kaleida Health and UB – and the merger of CEPA and Big Orbit galleries, in which CEPA is essentially absorbing Big Orbit.
Yet if UB were to absorb Roswell Park in that way, the results would be disastrous, Higgins warned.
That’s because Roswell Park’s reputation and the UB medical school’s exist on two entirely different planes, he said.
Roswell Park has been one of the nation’s leading cancer hospitals for more than a century. But the Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education recently placed UB’s general surgery and pediatric surgery residency programs on probation, and the university shuttered its dermatology program after that, too, ended up on probation.
“They can’t solve the problems of the UB medical school on the backs of Roswell Park,” Higgins said. “Western New York needs to position Roswell Park to become the best cancer center in the nation. ... Any effort to merge Roswell with an institution that will jeopardize Roswell Park’s designation as a comprehensive cancer center should be rejected aggressively and categorically.”
Trump said, however, that successful collaborative efforts between Roswell Park and UB could stop well short of a merger.
For instance, potential opportunities for greater efficiency include combining medical libraries and the management of grants. UB and Roswell Park already have long-standing links in the training of new cancer specialists and cancer-related researchers, and the consultant may recommend ways to enhance those existing relationships, he said.
“Collaborations, linkages and partnerships have become increasingly important across the country in medical care and education,” Trump said.
“You need to do this to thrive in an era of reduced funding for science and clinical care,” he said. “We’ve also been asked by New York to examine ways to become more independent of the state.”
UB officials, in a statement, said the school is the cancer center’s long-time academic partner, with a shared education, research and patient-care mission.
“The university, with Roswell Park and with the support of the Oishei Foundation, is engaged in a process to explore ways we can build upon our shared commitment to improving clinical care, medical research and education in our region, growing the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and ultimately transforming Buffalo into a world-class health care destination,” the statement said.
Asked about a possible Roswell Park-UB merger while in Buffalo last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he knows nothing about it.
“What we have talked about are creative alternatives,” Cuomo said.
Asked again about the merger possibility on Friday, state officials said state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah was invited to the meeting Monday to discuss ways Roswell Park and UB can work more collaboratively and that merger is not a topic for the meeting. He will attend.
Still, Higgins wonders and worries.
For one thing, he marveled that the Oshei Foundation could have been involved in the effort since March 2012 with little, if any, public disclosure of its efforts.
“Why is this discussion going on with such secrecy?” he asked.
Moreover, Higgins noted that Albany – and particularly the state Department of Health – has been cutting back on the state commitment to Roswell Park since the Pataki administration. He said he believes the state Department of Health is behind the merger talks, figuring that there are too many hospital beds in Buffalo – and figuring that a merger could bring the state Roswell Park’s cancer research dollars, as well as any royalties from cancer breakthroughs made there.
“The New York State Department of Health has had it out for Roswell for a long time,” Higgins said. “I don’t get it.”