Throwing Fitz

The move to Fitzsimons was supposed to send CU's Health Sciences Center sailing into the 21st century. So why are so many doctors jumping ship?

When Robert "Chip" Schooley arrived in Denver from Harvard fourteen years ago, the rate of survival among Colorado's AIDS patients was grim. The people in his waiting room had a one-in-six chance of dying within a year.

"At the time, there wasn't much of an AIDS program anywhere between St. Louis and San Francisco," recalls Schooley, head of the infectious-diseases division at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. "When people don't perceive that care is available, they don't have much reason to be tested for infection. The virus is being spread mostly by people who don't know they're infected."

Over the past decade, Schooley and other HSC researchers -- including his wife, Constance Benson -- have built one of the most respected AIDS research and treatment centers in the nation. His clinical-trials unit has been a testing ground for new drug therapies that have dramatically extended the lives of patients around the world. A clinic through University Hospital treats more than 1,200 HIV-infected people a year, including hundreds of indigent patients. An educational training center provides outreach to eleven states. Last year, the HSC was designated a National Institutes of Health Center for AIDS Research, one of only twenty in the nation.

Once an obscure enterprise within the labyrinthine medical center, Schooley's division now brings in between $8 million and $10 million a year in research grants, mainly from the federal government. His physicians bill around $1.1 million a year for patient care and do 50 percent more consultations than any other division in the Department of Medicine, the largest department in CU's School of Medicine. And Schooley and Benson have emerged as internationally prominent AIDS researchers.

"The thing I'm most proud of is the integrated way we provide patient care and do research," Schooley says. "We now lose 1.5 percent of our patients a year, and half of that is from causes not related to AIDS. That's a tremendous success, and the research we've done here has played a big role in that."

Long squeezed for space at its 47-acre campus at Ninth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, the HSC is now in the middle of moving its schools, research facilities and hospitals to a brand-new, 180-acre campus at the site of the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora. The $1.3 billion expansion, in conjunction with a bioscience research park and retail-and-office development planned at Fitzsimons, is the largest construction project in the state since Denver International Airport.

You might think that Schooley, who's been compelled in recent years to lease rooms above a Boston Market for clinical research, would welcome the additional research space and amenities that administrators have vowed to provide at the new campus. Instead, he's deeply troubled by the impact of the move on his division and on the medical center's general direction -- so troubled that he's exploring opportunities elsewhere. He and Benson have been heavily recruited by the University of California at San Diego in recent months but have yet to make a final decision.

"Two issues have been of concern to us for some time," Schooley says. "A significant portion of the resources that are designated in most medical centers for operation of programs are being redirected for capital construction. That leaves you at a competitive disadvantage. The other concern is the geographic disruption."

Although the HSC's top brass have accelerated their original plan for the move and now hope to have most facilities at Fitzsimons operational by the end of 2007, staffers are currently dealing with a split campus. Some patient care and research work has already shifted to Aurora, while the actual medical school and other research activities linger in Denver -- a logistical problem compounded by financial uncertainties that could delay the completion date. Administrators have characterized the divided campus as a minor inconvenience, but Schooley disagrees.

"The institution as a whole does clinical care, research and education," he notes. "If the patients are at Fitzsimons and the labs are in Denver, you're going back and forth and having a substantial part of the day wasted. Research is not a nebulous thing. If you're not able to get the work done, you're not able to get the grants in future years. If we were paid by the state, it wouldn't be an issue. But we have to generate our salaries every year from seeing patients and writing grants. We can't do that if the institution is a difficult place to work."

The prospect of losing Schooley and Benson alarms local AIDS activists, who've praised the couple for being "community focused," promoting education and public forums and making experimental drugs available to patients who have nowhere else to turn.

"We've felt fortunate that we have so many top-notch people in Colorado and that we have access to them," says Michael Dorosh, who serves on the community advisory board of the local AIDS clinical-trial unit. "Chip and Connie brought a great group of people together and developed a great program, and now the first place the pharmaceutical companies call when they're going forward with a new fusion inhibitor is Colorado. If they leave, there are people who will go with them.

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