Final destination for Ross veterinary students — Buffalo?

Abandoned medical facility could become veterinary teaching hospital

March 7, 2013 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Students entering their clinical year at Caribbean-based Ross University’s veterinary school might soon be headed to Buffalo, N.Y., to complete their training.   

That’s if plans to turn the abandoned Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital into a veterinary teaching hospital come to fruition.   

Right now, details of the venture are hush-hush. The VIN News Service could not obtain confirmation from parties to the deal about Ross' role.

However, word of a partnership has spread throughout greater Buffalo.   

“There’s been so much secrecy,” said Dr. Peter Freyburger, president of the Niagara Frontier Veterinary Society and a practitioner in Tonawanda, N.Y. “What I’m hearing is the SPCA Serving Erie County, currently located north of the city, will be feeding this new teaching hospital medical cases.”   

Officials with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) could not be reached. Neither could leaders with Medaille College, which has a veterinary technology program that reportedly could move onto the 10-acre Millard Fillmore campus. At least six local practitioners reportedly have signed confidentiality agreements with Chason Affinity to be part of the Buffalo project.    

Last summer, the development company Chason Affinity announced a $65-million proposal to turn the abandoned Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital into a veterinary medical college and teaching hospital. They promised to enroll as many as 600 students within five years.

Whether plans still exist to develop a veterinary medical college — not just a teaching hospital — remains to be seen. At the time of the deal’s announcement, officials with Chason Affinity cited a need for more veterinarians in the country and a lack of veterinary medical programs in which to educate them.

But those conditions are in question.

Word of Ross’ potential deal in Buffalo comes as the American Veterinary Medical Association resolves to take a hard look at supply and demand issues impacting the profession. At least three new veterinary schools in addition to the one in Buffalo are emerging in the United States at a time when practitioners, especially those in small animal practice, grapple with a soft economy, declining patient visits, greater competition and astronomical student loan debt.  

Jennifer Mauer, head of the New York State Veterinary Medical Society, is soliciting member comment in light of a recent New York Times article spotlighting the high educational debt load of veterinary students and how a weakened job market and low salaries have made the loans nearly impossible for some to pay back. 

Mauer wouldn't comment on how the prospect of an unspecified number of Ross students finishing their final studies in Buffalo might impact New York veterinarians.   

The deal is between private entities, she said. The details are based on speculation.      

“We truly don’t know what’s happening,” Mauer said. “We don’t have any position because they haven’t given us any information.”  

Officials at Ross University are hesitant to provide details. DeVry Inc., a private, for-profit higher education organization based in Downers Grove, Ill., owns the university.  

Ross’ DVM program is on St. Kitts, a Caribbean island where would-be veterinarians pay upwards of $55,000 a year for their education, not including living expenses and travel costs. The vast majority of Ross’ veterinary students come from the United States, where they return during their final year to do clinical rotations in teaching hospitals operated by U.S.-based veterinary schools.   

Ross outsources its clinical training because it doesn’t have a veterinary teaching hospital or medical caseload large enough to accommodate its students. Last year, 287 Ross students completed their clinical year — a class size triple that of many other veterinary medical programs. According to its website, Ross’ clinical affiliations span dozens of veterinary institutions in the United States and elsewhere.

Cornell University soon will not be one of them.

Based in Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell’s veterinary college is 155 miles east of Millard Fillmore in Buffalo. Recently, officials with the program decided to increase class size by 12, and end its deal to rotate Ross students through the Cornell University Hospital for Animals.   

Whether Cornell's decision to sever ties with Ross had anything to do with the Buffalo plans is unclear. Cornell veterinary students will fill the clinical space once set aside for Ross students.

Dr. Michael Kotlikoff, dean of Cornell's veterinary college, briefly mentioned the change in a letter to students and faculty: “When the first class of 120 Cornell students graduates in 2021, we will not be training any more students than the size of our current fourth-year class."

Despite Cornell’s decision, the number of clinical seats available to Ross students remains “adequate,” said Dr. Elaine Watson, dean of Ross’ veterinary school. “We will continue to retain our relationships with our affiliate programs,” she said by email.   

Asked whether Ross has a role in the development of a Buffalo teaching hospital, she said: “As we continually develop our programs, we are reviewing opportunities to provide increased exposure to primary case material for our students. (Ross’ veterinary school) is looking at several options, but as they are in the formative stage, commenting would be premature.”  

Mark Cushing, a lobbyist for Ross and a member of the Chason Affinity development team, is pushing for the teaching hospital in Buffalo. In an email to the VIN News Service, he said it was inappropriate to share details about a project that's "in an exploratory phase."   

“I am not in a position to discuss any particulars about Buffalo, other than what has been said publicly,” he added. “The terms of my engagement with Chason Affinity requires this and, as always, I defer to my client.”  

Phone calls to Jeff Birtch, Chason Affinity’s chief executive officer, were not returned.   

Freyburger, the veterinarian in Tonawanda, N.Y., is getting tired of the secrets and confidentiality agreements. He’s been waiting for officials with Chason Affinity or Ross University to address the profession since January, when he learned of the potential deal.  

“They’ve had at least a month to release this information in a format they’re happy with,” he said. “I, for one, think the profession needs to start talking about it.”    

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