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Defense Department officials have delayed a meeting on whether to fire the president of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, or USUHS, a retired Army two-star general who has led the military medical school for nearly five years.
According to a source with knowledge of the proposed dismissal of Dr. Richard Thomas, a meeting scheduled for Jan. 11, during which Thomas was to present his defense, has been delayed until February.
An exact date was not provided.
Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both Democrats, wrote Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller on Jan. 8 about the issue, urging him to review a decision to fire Thomas, a board-certified medical surgeon and dentist who served as chief medical officer and director of health care operations at the Defense Health Agency before he retired from the Army in 2016.
The senators said that DoD officials planned to remove Thomas from office at the Bethesda-based school and research facility effective Jan. 11 for what "appears to be in retribution for his advocacy on behalf of military medicine."
The action, the senators said, "raises serious questions about its basis and whether it is retaliatory in nature."
News of the case was first published by Politico, which obtained a copy of a notice of proposed removal signed by Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs Thomas McCaffery on Dec. 17.
According to Politico, the DoD said the firing was due to Thomas' "poor management of a subordinate," Dr. Arthur Kellermann.
Kellermann served as dean of the university's medical school until last year, when he announced his departure for a new position at Virginia Commonwealth University. He had previously faced allegations of distributing personal information about a volunteer adjunct faculty member found to have plagiarized to encourage military medical organizations to rescind the faculty member's membership. It’s not clear if these allegations played a role in his departure.
According to the report, McCaffery told Thomas he was "advised that Dr. Kellermann's actions could subject the University and the Department to litigation and potential liability, and that Dr. Kellermann's actions were potentially criminal in nature. ... Despite repeated advisements and warnings, you continued to support ... Dr. Kellermann's actions and failed to take any action to mitigate the risk of exposure to litigation and/or liability for the Agency."
Advocates, however, say that the dismissal is linked to Thomas' dedication to the university, which has been targeted for budget cuts.
Politico reported that Dr. Jonathan Woodson, president of the university's board of regents who served as assistant secretary of defense for health affairs while Thomas was on active duty, wrote Miller late last year to address the issue.
"The relationship between Mr. McCaffery and Dr. Thomas has often been one of professional tension as a result of Dr. Thomas' dedication to mission and firm yet always ethical and enlightened defense of the University from those in the budget community who sought its closure," Woodson wrote in a Dec. 31 letter obtained by Politico. "The timing of the proposed actions, the significant inconsistencies in the letter and the draconian punishment proposed make me suspect other personal issues are involved."
In 2019, the Defense Department's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, or CAPE, office recommended that the university be scaled back or eliminated as part of an effort to reduce the budget and size of the military health system.
CAPE proposed a $90 million reduction in school operations and maintenance between 2021 and 2025 and also a $73.3 million reduction in research -- essentially cutting all basic research -- and eliminating programs such as the National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health, and the Center for Deployment Psychology.
It also recommended a cutting the budget of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress by 70%.
The cuts were included in President Donald Trump's fiscal 2021 budget request and made it into the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, but were not included in the final bill.
The plan to downsize or close the school isn't the first time the institution has been targeted for the chopping block: President Bill Clinton's proposed fiscal 1995 budget called for phasing it out.
Among the reasons it is often targeted for cuts is the size of its budget and cost per student. According to the Institute of Defense Analyses, the school has a higher accession cost than civilian schools: It takes about $1 million to train, house and feed a military physician at USUHS versus $400,000 for a medical school scholarship.
But it also has a higher retention rate. USUHS-trained physicians stay, on average, six years longer in the service, 15.2 years vice 9.2 years.
Woodson did not respond to a request for comment from Military.com.
Thomas, who has hired legal representation in the case, said he has been advised not to comment while the situation is ongoing.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said the department does not comment on personnel matters.