University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, April 28, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

The Mississippi State Department of Health says that the University of Mississippi Medical Center can potentially host a state burn center.

Whether it actually has the qualifications to do so, however, is unclear. 

Mississippi’s only accredited burn center, housed at Merit Health Center in south Jackson, closed in October amid pandemic-related issues and staffing challenges. Ever since, both UMMC and Mississippi Baptist Medical Center have been competing for the title of the state’s next burn center.

In February, a House committee approved giving UMMC $4 million to open a burn center. Mere weeks later, the full House tried to make Mississippi Baptist Medical Center — where the former medical director of Merit’s burn center, Dr. Derek Culnan, now practices — the home of the state’s next burn center. 

However, before the conclusion of the legislative session, both chambers passed a bill that allocates $4 million toward the state’s next burn center in the state Health Department’s budget, seemingly giving them the responsibility of choosing the burn center’s home.

While both Baptist and UMMC have submitted applications to host the state’s next burn center, only UMMC has been approved thus far. 

UMMC said in a press release on Tuesday that Department of Health officials visited UMMC’s campus on March 21 to assess the medical center’s compliance with standards for a burn center and has officially “designated” UMMC as a “Mississippi Burn Center.” 

However, MSDH spokesperson Liz Sharlot said via email that the department merely has the ability to approve that medical centers are qualified to have a burn center, not choose the home of the state’s next burn center.

“UMMC has received designation and so can other hospitals,” Sharlot said. “The law doesn’t say we pick, instead, we review the application, complete an inspection and the (state health officer) then designates the facility as a burn center consistent with trauma rules and regulations.”

There is nothing in the law that would prohibit the $4 million going to more than one hospital.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, left, talks with committee members about the proposal for a $247 million economic development project during a special session of the Mississippi Legislature in Jackson, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Sen. Briggs Hopson, a conferee on the bill that included the money for a burn center, told Mississippi Today the bill is intended to give the state Health Department the responsibility of assessing which institution could host the state’s next burn center. 

“We had conflicting data as to which entities would be best suited, so rather than the legislators making that decision without the benefit of a full analysis of who’s best suited, we felt like that would be a good place for the Department of Health to review it and analyze what needed to be done as to who’s best suited for it,” Hopson said.

UMMC’s application shows that none of its burn center physicians is currently certified under basic burn care standards. It is also unclear how the burn center’s director, Dr. Peter Arnold, meets the qualifications to lead a burn center. 

State regulations say a burn center director is required to have completed a burn fellowship or have spent two of the last five years taking care of burn patients. Arnold has been at UMMC for the past five years, while the state’s only burn center has been housed at Merit.

When asked about Arnold, a spokeswoman from UMMC referred to an emailed statement sent to Mississippi Today in January.

Dr. Alan Jones, UMMC’s associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs, said Arnold has had “extensive training and experience in caring for patients with acute burns and complex wounds in his nearly 20-year career.” He also said that Arnold is assisted at the unaccredited Mississippi Burn Center, which UMMC established in January, by “five other highly qualified, expertly trained plastic surgeons, all of whom have significant experience treating pediatric and adult acutely burned patients.”

UMMC has claimed that it’s cared for burn patients since last fall, including pediatric patients, but internal emails revealed otherwise.

However, according to UMMC’s burn center application to MSDH, none of the employees involved in the burn center is trained in Advanced Burn Life Support. ABLS training is the standard education for providers who treat patients with burns. Additionally, UMMC’s application shows that internal burn care education is currently nonexistent but is in development.

When questioned this week about Arnold and his employees’ training, UMMC spokespeople said they had “no further comment.” 

Sharlot said that an independent team of consultants found that Arnold met the criteria to serve as a burn center medical director, but did not say how, nor would she say who those consultants were. The same consultants said that UMMC partially met ABLS training requirements and that there was a corrective action plan in place to ensure all staff would receive training. 

Culnan, the former burn center’s medical director who is now credentialed at Baptist, said his team has nine staff members trained in ABLS, two of whom are ABLS instructors. He has also completed a one-year burn fellowship.

Culnan, a fellowship-trained burn surgeon, was sued by his former employer and the operator of the center at Merit Health Central, Joseph M. Still (JMS) Burn Center Inc., for allegedly violating his employment contract by soliciting JMS employees to join his new company. He created the new company after Merit Health Central announced it would be closing the burn center. Kimberly Alexander, a spokesperson for Baptist, said the lawsuit has been resolved.

“We have submitted our application as a burn center and expect to have a survey soon,” Alexander said. “We are continuing to care for burn patients daily.”

State burn center funds from the bill are not available until July, according to Sharlot.

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Devna Bose, a Neshoba County native, covers community health. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied print journalism and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Devna reported on education at Chalkbeat Newark and at the Post and Courier’s Education Lab, and on race and social justice at the Charlotte Observer. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Star-Ledger and the Associated Press, and she has appeared on WNYC to discuss her reporting. Devna has been awarded for her coverage of K-12 education in the Carolinas.