When the University of North Texas Health Science Center and TCU announced in 2015 they would team up to offer an M.D. degree program, it came with one lingering caveat.
While students could attend classes at UNTHSC, a public graduate school, the degree could only be offered by Texas Christian University, a private institution.
For UNTHSC to be able to offer an M.D. degree, it would need a state law changed, followed by the blessing of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board.
The first hurdle was quietly cleared this past legislative session, when House Bill 1913, sponsored by State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, passed and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on May 29. State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, carried the bill in the Senate.
Legislation stipulating that no M.D. program could be awarded from UNTHSC had been passed in 1993.
UNTHSC offers a D.O. degree through the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, which was founded in 1970. The Health Science Center first attempted to get legislative approval to start its own M.D. degree program in 2009.
Both osteopaths and M.D.s are licensed to practice medicine in the United States. One difference is in philosophy: Osteopathic physicians, or D.O.s, believe that the body has an innate ability to heal itself and thus focus on disease prevention.
The move was opposed by many graduates of the UNTHSC who were concerned about losing the school’s identity. Other high-profile university systems, such as the University of Texas, also were in opposition because they had expansion plans of their own to pursue.
State Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, who received his doctor of osteopathy degree from TCOM in 1989, said Geren fought to protect the school, which sits about three miles north of TCU.
“Frankly, he got us the best deal he could out of all of the options that were out there,” Sheffield said. “It could have gone a lot worse.”
The TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine is scheduled to open in July 2019. Initially, it will be housed at the new UNTHSC Interdisciplinary Research and Education Building, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018. Classes also will be held at TCU.
Chairman Geren told us early on that he would protect the D.O.s. We took him at his word, and he followed through on his commitment.
David Reynolds, executive director of the Texas Osteopathic Medical Association
The M.D. school captured national attention in April when it announced its inaugural class of 60 students will get free tuition for its first year of medical school.
“The passage of House Bill 1913 strengthens the collaboration between TCU and UNTHSC by allowing the Health Science Center to move ahead in its efforts to award an M.D. degree,” said Jeff Carlton, spokesman for UNTHSC. “This bill fulfills the promise of a new medical school benefiting from the leadership and vision of two excellent universities.”
Carlton said it’s not known when the state’s coordinating board might consider the matter.
But if all goes according to plan, the degree will include the names of both UNTHSC and TCU.
‘TCOM is protected’
The Texas Osteopathic Medical Association, agreed not to fight Geren’s bill, said Dr. Steven Bander, the association’s president.
“TOMA conditionally supported the concept of a private TCU Medical School partnering with the state-supported UNTHSC-TCOM in Fort Worth to produce top-caliber medical school graduates,” said Bander, a TCOM graduate.
Sheffield acknowledged that some D.O.’s aren’t thrilled with the legislation, but the guarantee that TCU will not seek state funding helped ease those fears.
“Yes, TCOM is protected,” Sheffield said. “Will there be some people later on that will want to make further changes? That is possible. But for right now it is safe and we’ll fight whatever battles we have to down the road.”
Dr. Robert DeLuca, a TCOM graduate who practices in Eastland, said many D.O.’s still have concerns about how the new TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine will operate.
“We all have mixed feelings,” DeLuca said. “The fight to stop an M.D. school at UNTHSC declined when the president partnered with TCU to provide the degree. We still question how a state school can offer a private school public classroom space and facilities.”
No D.O.’s should be concerned that an M.D. program could shift funding or resources from the osteopathy program, Geren said.
Geren, chair of the House Administration Committee, said a rider placed in the state budget prevents funds allocated to the UNTHSC from being spent on the M.D. school.
“The rider ... says the M.D. school can’t seek formula funding,” Geren said. “They don’t want to be in there. They don’t want it to be a state-funded school.”
‘It’s not just an osteopathic college’
Nelson, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has historically wanted assurances that the D.O. program wouldn’t be harmed by the M.D. program.
“I have been assured that the university is committed to maintaining a first-class osteopathic medicine program, which is important for Texas because this institution graduates top-notch professionals — many of whom practice in rural and underserved areas,” said Nelson, whose district includes portions of Tarrant County.
Geren also said the legislation removes the provision that the president of the UNT Health Science Center be a licensed doctor of osteopathy, explaining that it “broadens the pool of applicants.”
Now that there are several different medical colleges at UNTHSC, Geren said, it only makes sense to remove that requirement.
“It’s not just an osteopathic college anymore,” Geren said.
The current president, Dr. Michael Williams, is both a D.O. and an M.D. and also has a master of business administration degree.
Williams, who was on vacation, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Dr. Stuart Flynn, the dean of the medical school, said the legislation allows the creation of “a collaborative M.D. school” that takes advantage of both universities.
“One of the original objectives since the announcement of the school was to include UNTHSC as a degree-granting university, and this law brings us closer to realizing that goal,” Flynn said.
David Reynolds, executive director of the Texas Osteopathic Medical Association, said Geren’s commitment to TCOM was key in getting the group’s cooperation.
“Chairman Geren told us early on that he would protect the D.O.’s. We took him at his word, and he followed through on his commitment,” Reynolds said.