With medical school slated for UGA, leaders try to quell anxiety in Augusta

Augusta University currently operates the state's lone public medical school, the Medical College of Georgia. That could soon change, with support for a second public medical college at the University of Georgia. (Arvin Temkar / AJC file photo)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Augusta University currently operates the state's lone public medical school, the Medical College of Georgia. That could soon change, with support for a second public medical college at the University of Georgia. (Arvin Temkar / AJC file photo)

For years, the idea of a new medical school at the University of Georgia triggered a fierce turf war at the state Capitol over limited higher education dollars and a perceived threat to the pride of Augusta, home of the state’s lone public medical college.

But after Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled plans this month to include $50 million in spending to speed the construction of a new medical school on UGA’s campus, the reaction from Augusta officials has ranged from muted concern to outright support.

Augusta’s mayor and the leader of Augusta University, home to the Medical College of Georgia, issued supportive statements about the proposal lodged in Kemp’s spending plan, which would be supported by UGA funding to design and build the school.

Kemp and his allies have said it would help address a severe physician shortage. In an interview, he said the new medical school, along with a proposed new $178 million dental school campus in Savannah, would also “help tackle our rural health care needs.”

“Having a new medical school churning out more doctors and a dental school churning out more dentists is good,” he said. “And I think the time is right for that.”

Sonny Perdue, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, acknowledged a second public medical school could spark concerns in Augusta, but administrators are working to quell fears. Perdue said the goal is to grow all of Georgia’s medical education, not to diminish Augusta’s role.

“There’s natural anxiety in the Augusta community regarding another medical school. There’s a lot of pride of Augusta, what the medical college has meant to the state, as well as what it’s meant to Augusta over the years,” he said at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

Augusta Mayor Garnett Johnson said he backs the plan because it will “build education pipelines that will lead to more physicians and health care clinicians in the state of Georgia.”

And the presidents of both UGA and Augusta University, which rely on state funds to operate, have described the proposal as a “natural” next step in their existing partnership.

The current reaction is a far cry from the vicious infighting Perdue experienced during his two terms as governor in the 2000s when Augusta lawmakers worked to block construction of a UGA medical school.

They worried that an Athens campus would rob resources from Augusta. At one point, the tensions were so bad that then-Chancellor Erroll Davis trekked to Augusta to smooth ruffled feathers of locals worried MCG would become a satellite campus.

Some still harbor deep worries about the new competition to MCG. Augusta-Richmond Commissioner Brandon Garrett said Kemp’s proposal came as “quite a shock” to Augusta residents.

“We hope that funding for future growth here will be equitable as the investment is being made in Athens to help secure Georgia’s future medical care and training,” he said.

Perdue has repeatedly made the case for a new medical school by framing it as an answer to Georgia’s doctor shortage, telling lawmakers it’s “desperately needed.” Nine of Georgia’s 159 counties have no doctor at all, and 65 counties don’t have a pediatrician, he said.

The new Savannah dental school would be accredited by and expand the reach of Augusta University’s Dental College of Georgia, which could alleviate any sting. It would launch with a class size of 40 students.

In 2010, Augusta University and UGA partnered to open a regional medical campus in Athens. In 2021, the Athens site expanded from 40 medical students per class to 60. The plan calls for transitioning the UGA campus to a standalone, independently accredited medical school within several years.

At a recent budget meeting, state Rep. Jodi Lott, a Republican who represents a suburb of Augusta, asked why the state would set up a separate medical school instead of growing the existing partnership, noting the many mergers in the health care sector.

Regents Chair Harold Reynolds has tried to soothe concerns by telling Augusta officials and higher education administrators that MCG would “remain Georgia’s public flagship medical school.”

“The future of the Medical College of Georgia is bright,” Reynolds said.

Even so, there are still significant hurdles as the Board of Regents prepares to vote as early as next month to proceed with the medical school proposal.

Among them is developing more partnerships with hospitals and creating new residency slots, an area where Georgia already struggles.

A feasibility study identified three health care systems that could partner with UGA as clinical training partners, including developing residency training positions — Northeast Georgia Health System, Piedmont Healthcare and St. Mary’s Health Care System.

“This is not going to be a simple thing, just like turning on a switch now,” Perdue told the Board of Regents.

He said the University System would depend on the Medical College of Georgia for many specialties, which couldn’t be launched immediately at a new UGA site.

Last year, the board approved Wellstar Health System’s takeover of Augusta University’s hospitals, which serve as training sites for the school’s medical students. Officials said the deal would provide more opportunities for medical residencies and training for the Medical College of Georgia, including a regional medical campus at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta.