When Eastern Virginia Medical School and Sentara clashed over the future of the school seven months ago, the school hired a PR firm, whose owner started a blog that has posted a flurry of negative pieces about its hospital partner.
Since November, the blog has written many posts, some containing unsubstantiated claims about Sentara that it said came through tips. It also gives accounts of its attempts to get the hospital to respond to those claims.
The relationship between EVMS’ crisis communications firm, Tigercomm, and the blog, known as Checks & Balances Project, was first published by The Washington Post on Friday. EVMS had not previously disclosed it.
The school is expected to pay the PR firm $150,000, according to its contract. Tigercomm, hired by EVMS the same month the blog began writing about Sentara, has helped the freestanding medical school run a community engagement program involving focus groups with residents on how to address health disparities in Hampton Roads.
Vincent Rhodes, an EVMS spokesperson, said the school doesn’t have a contract with Checks & Balances, or the blog’s financer, Renew American Prosperity, and no EVMS funds have been used to support them.
Renew American Prosperity is an advocacy nonprofit group that isn’t required by law to reveal its financial backers. Both the blog and the advocacy group are listed as clients of Tigercomm on its website.
“We did not and do not direct or request any content or coverage from the blog,” Rhodes said. “We have no influence over it.”
He said Tigercomm’s president, Mike Casey, told him, school president Richard Homan and board of visitors rector Theresa Emory about his blog “sometime after his company was hired.” In a separate interview Monday, Casey said the school knew about his connection to Checks & Balances “upfront.”
Sentara officials released a statement following the report in which it criticized EVMS for spending money on the PR firm to “attack its biggest supporter,” rather than on academics.
“Sentara Healthcare has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the medical school and remains committed to helping train doctors to serve our community. It is unsettling to think that this Hampton Roads institution would elect to spend a significant amount of money on hiring a PR firm that has a history of nefarious behavior and questionable associations,” the hospital system said. “Given the school’s financial challenges, these funds could have been better used on academics, faculty and resident support, research, or scholarships for students.”
A behind-the-scenes feud between EVMS and Sentara became public in the fall when a consultant, hired by a third party business think tank, ReInvent Hampton Roads, made recommendations on how the medical school could be run by ODU.
The consultant, Manatt Health Strategies, also urged that EVMS’ faculty of doctors and nurses could be absorbed into Sentara’s medical practices group. The report was given to Gov. Ralph Northam ahead of the General Assembly session.
In emails obtained by The Virginian-Pilot, EVMS’ Homan and Emory had questioned who Manatt’s real client was. They discovered Sentara CEO Howard Kern was also a director on ReInvent’s board, a relationship they considered a conflict of interest and a fact not disclosed to them before they agreed to participate in the merger study.
EVMS’ board ultimately held a vote of no confidence in the consultant, predominantly paid for by Sentara, because members believed the process lacked transparency and was an attempt to strip the school of its independent governance.
The medical school, started by the community nearly 50 years ago, is rare in that it does not have a university hospital and isn’t part of a larger educational system. Because of that, it maintains complicated relationships with Sentara, Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters and medical practices throughout the region.
Despite tensions, EVMS and Sentara have partnered for decades through a symbiotic relationship: The hospital system offers clinical teaching environments for the school, and the school provides doctors and medical residents for Sentara’s workforce.
Since The Pilot published its first story on the merger study, Checks & Balances has sent a reporter more than 20 emails, trying to solicit coverage of its blog posts about Sentara. In January, the blog sent an advisory to The Pilot and other local media outlets in Norfolk and Greensboro, North Carolina, about a “mobile billboard” coming to those cities “raising questions around the CEO of Sentara, Howard Kern.”
“The Checks & Balances Project (C&BP) is currently investigating the circumstances around the upcoming $11.5B (billion) merger between Sentara Healthcare with North Carolina-based Cone Health,” the advisory said.
The billboard, which was actually a truck, had a Checks & Balances logo on it with the message “Paid for by Renew American Prosperity.”
Last week, Sentara and Greensboro-based Cone Health jointly announced they were calling off their plans to merge the hospital systems, with scant details on what prompted the about-face. Sentara officials have declined to say whether the regulatory review process had factored into the decision to drop it.
In response to Sentara’s statement about EVMS’ hiring of Tigercomm, the school issued its own, saying it has appreciated the funding Sentara has provided, but the school remains “dramatically underfunded” compared to what hospital partners give to other medical schools nationwide.
“We operated in good faith and cooperated fully during the Manatt process until it became clear that the Manatt report was going to have a foregone conclusion — a proposal that would dismantle the school and greatly benefit Sentara by its acquisition of the EVMS Medical Group as part of their practice plan and by shifting financial support over the long term to the Commonwealth and Old Dominion University,” the school said. “That is truly unsettling.”
EVMS and Sentara both say they remain committed to improving the health of Hampton Roads residents, particularly in underserved communities.
Elisha Sauers, 757-839-4754, firstname.lastname@example.org