Fresno Family Funds Pharmacy College in Central Valley

CLOVIS — A family known for breaking ground to build housing developments and downtown lofts is now financing a project that is groundbreaking in a different way — starting a new health sciences school from scratch, beginning with a program offering a four-year post-baccalaureate pharmacy degree.

The Assemi family, founder of Granville Homes in Fresno, is privately funding the project with a $20 million investment. Currently, there is only one pharmacy school between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area — at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, about two hours north of Fresno.

The new four-year school — California Health Sciences University — plans to accept its first students in the fall of 2014. The school initially will be housed in a 30,000 square-foot building in Clovis, a small town next to Fresno. Eventually, school officials hope to develop a 100-acre campus north of Fresno with post-graduate programs in other disciplines such as podiatry and optometry.

Officials said the for-profit school is the first start-up, post-graduate university in Central California to offer a pharmacy degree as its initial program.

More Scrutiny of For-Profit Education

Scrutiny of for-profit education — especially in health care — has increased recently on several fronts including legislation, research projects and state oversight. Common themes include the high costs of education compared with graduation rates and graduates’ ability to find jobs.

The state Legislature approved and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed the California Private Postsecondary Education Act last fall. The law is designed to give students more accurate consumer information about tuition, loan repayment and employment after graduation. The Center for the Health Professions at UC-San Francisco launched a research project last fall examining health care training programs in California with special attention to private, for-profit programs.

For-profit universities – including a school of pharmacy in Sacramento founded by the first dean of California Health Sciences University – have generated controversy over high tuition costs and the loans students often need to pay them.

David Hawkins, dean of the new Central Valley school, was also founding dean of California Northstate University College of Pharmacy in Sacramento. The Sacramento school graduated its first class of 82 students in 2012 but failed to achieve full professional accreditation before its first graduates moved into the workforce.

That reportedly angered some students who paid more than $40,000 a year in tuition.

Hawkins said he expects the Sacramento school to gain full accreditation this summer.

Tuition for California Health Sciences University’s pharmacy program will be “about, $43,000 a year, comparable to other programs around the state,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said the new valley school has established a foundation to offer scholarships to low-income students. “We’ve already got $2 million pledged and we hope to raise much more,” Hawkins said.

Shortage of Health Care Professionals Drives Project

Increasing homegrown health care providers is the main motivation behind starting the new school, not making money, officials said.

“We expect it will take three or four years to break even and after that there is no intention to generate profits,” Hawkins said. “When revenues exceed expenses, the excess will go back into the school,” Hawkins added.

“The vision really was what kind of educational opportunities are needed in the Valley?” said Richele Kleiser, Granville Homes marketing manager. “The Assemi family is very well rooted here. They care very deeply. They were looking long-term at what kind of venture could be transformational for the area.”

Transformational because of the tremendous shortage of health care professionals in the area, Kleiser said. It’s a problem that will intensify under the Affordable Care Act. 

“It’s been estimated that between Modesto and Bakersfield, there could be as many as 900,000 new people under the health care act that do not have insurance today,” Kleiser said.

The new school’s governing board includes John Welty, president of California State University-Fresno.

Welty, in his last year as president of Fresno State, said there are many students in the Central Valley who can’t afford to go to a pharmacy school in Los Angeles or the Bay Area.

“I think it will provide an opportunity for students to pursue pharmacy at a school that’s accessible” in an affordable region of California, Welty said.

He said he’s become increasingly aware of the huge shortage of health care workers in the Valley and agreed to serve on the board because he wanted to help get the school off to a good start.

California Health Sciences University plans to open its doors to the first class of about 80 pharmacy students in the fall of 2014. Once the four-year pharmacy school is in place, the university hopes to develop other health care colleges.   

“The idea is to eventually include a medical school and allied health to help meet the needs of people who live here,” said Hawkins. There are no specific plans yet, but a podiatry school and optometry school are two of the other possibilities.

The pharmacy college was selected as the first school because of anticipated population growth in the area and increased demand for pharmacists over the next several years, especially as baby boomers continue to age and create a demand for more pharmaceutical services, Kleiser said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for pharmacists will increase by 25% over the next 10 years, which is faster than the average for all other occupations, Kleiser said.

Focus Will Be Primary Care

The school will focus on training new pharmacists to provide additional care to patients, especially for those with chronic diseases, said Hawkins.

“We’re providing education and training for our students to not only be able to provide contemporary pharmacy services but primary care,” he said. “What we’re talking about is being able to order lab tests, check blood pressure or check for retinal problems for patients with diabetes.” He anticipates a future with drugstores that have examination rooms where pharmacists can do primary care.

Pharmacists already collaborate with physicians on the care of patients, Hawkins said. 

“What we’re trying to do is extend that to prepare the pharmacist to see patients and evaluate them,” he said. Patients with chronic illnesses in particular benefit from the adjustments pharmacists know how to make when controlling diseases with drugs, he said.

Paul Hensler, chief executive of Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield, agreed that pharmacists are qualified to provide some primary care. The problem, he said, is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get insurers to reimburse them for that type of care. He said the center had to stop one program involving pharmacists who — under physician supervision — monitored the blood pressure of patients because no insurance company would pay for it. Kern Medical Center does have a diabetes clinic, however, where a pharmacist provides some primary care through a managed care plan. 

There is legislation in the works to officially recognize pharmacists as primary care providers in California. California state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) recently introduced three bills that would expand the scope of services provided by pharmacists, nurse practitioners and optometrists. He said the Affordable Care Act and the shortage of physicians necessitates more medical professionals in California who can provide care to the newly insured. 

Accreditation Process Under Way

Hawkins said the school, which is operating as a freestanding institution, still has to be approved by the Bureau for Private Post- Secondary Education and the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education.   

“My task is to get an administrative team together and begin to recruit faculty for the first year curriculum,” Hawkins said.

He said he was getting ready to retire to Georgia when he was asked to come to Fresno for two years to get this school up and running.

The university plans to recruit students from the Valley who want to stay in the Valley, Hawkins said. “To me, the most critical goal is providing more primary care,” he added.

He said he’s having a good time setting it all up. “It’s a lot of fun to create something from scratch.”

Related Topics

Health Industry Insight