By Gil C. Schmidt
Special to News is my Business
The U.S. District Court in San Juan is giving the parties in the ongoing controversy roiling San Juan Bautista School of Medicine (SJBSOM) more time to present supporting evidence to back up their respective claims.
SJBSOM is in court, fighting the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), a national accrediting agency, which on Oct. 3 withdrew the school’s accreditation, a decision that left the institution’s students in academic and career chaos as it prevents them from taking licensing tests and pursuing residencies in Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland. On Oct. 12, SJBSOM countered by filing in federal court for injunctive relief to reverse its loss of accreditation.
In a ruling issued late Thursday, Judge Gustavo Gelpi gave the school until Oct. 31st to invite friends of the court (“amicus curiae”) to present briefs about the LCME decision and the school’s attempt to reverse, even temporarily, the loss of accreditation, as well as its potential impact on health care and medical education.
In the meantime, more than 270 students now find themselves in a confusing situation, unable to properly complete their planned medical education and facing the prospect of having to start all over again at another school.
Judge Gelpi ruled that granting or rejecting injunctive relief would “have an impact on medical education in Puerto Rico” as well as an impact on the school’s students, “who may as a result be unable to practice medicine in the United States mainland.”
For these reasons, he directed both parties to invite amicus curiae to participate in the case. The list of potential “friends of the court” included the U.S. Department of Education, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the P.R. Department of Health and the Department of Justice, as well as other U.S. and local entities.
A painful track record
The LCME withdrew SJBSOM’s accreditation because of “insufficient clinical resources.” Its decision, as documents filed in this case reveal, indicated that the March 2011 bankruptcy filing of the San Juan Bautista Hospital, a key clinical facility for SJBSOM with more than $35 million in debt, seriously compromised the available clinical resources for the school’s students. Based in Caguas, SJBSOM is one of four medical schools in Puerto Rico.
The hospital, with a long history of debt and labor strife, declared bankruptcy to avoid having its electricity cut off due to a $21 million debt with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Although the local Health Department said it would work with the hospital to deal with the debt, a visit in April 2011 by the Joint Commission, the accrediting body for hospitals and clinics throughout the U.S. and Canada, withdrew its accreditation of the Hospital, citing unsafe conditions for patients and employees. Through direct intervention of the Puerto Rico Health Department, the accreditation was subsequently restored.
Also in April, the LCME visited SJBSOM to evaluate the hospital bankruptcy’s effect on the school’s capacity to meet the standards for medical education. As revealed in documents filed in this case, more than 250 pages’ worth, the LCME concluded that the hospital’s deficiencies seriously compromised SJBSOM’s capacity to provide adequate medical education and health care experience, falling far short of acceptable standards.
Based on these conclusions, the LCME decided to strip JBSOM’s accreditation, notifying the School of that decision on June 13th, 2011.
Despite the decision and ignoring LCME’s Procedures, the SJBSOM did not notify its current and incoming students of the impending loss of accreditation or the then-necessary Appeals Process to keep it.
The Appeal by the school was rejected by the LCME in mid-September, resulting in the Oct. 3rd “final” decision, which the School failed again to immediately communicate with the students.
Students weigh legal options
Meanwhile, SJBSOM students, individually and as different groups, are considering legal action against the school and the LCME. With many of them facing massive debts and the prospect of adding to it substantially, plus loss of time and effort, legal action might be the only redress they can seek as their educational and career prospects are now severely derailed.
In the words of a Student Council member: “We have to fight this because we’ve been left with nothing.”