US physician fights Ukraine’s medical academic mafia

You’re fired! So says Ul’yana Suprun, a retired United States radiology physician with Ukrainian last name and roots. She says so because she now serves as the acting minister of health of Ukraine. And she says so to rectors of Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt medical universities.

Ul’yana Suprun, also known as Ulana N Jurkiw, born in Detroit and a graduate of Michigan State University Medical School, was appointed acting minister of health of Ukraine in 2016. She was granted Ukrainian citizenship by the President a year earlier, in 2015, for her participation in Evromaidan, a bloody people’s uprising of 2014 that toppled Ukraine’s dictator, Viktor Yanukovych.

Part of her responsibilities as the acting minister include medical education. As this remains the case since the Soviet era, medical colleges and universities in Ukraine are subordinated to the branch ministry, that is, the Ministry of Healthcare.

Scandal in Kiev

Yekaterina Amosova, the rector of Bogomolets National Medical University in Kiev, the premiere medical education institution, was initially suspended from her office in February 2018 for her alleged failure to organise the Step One examination in the faculty of dentistry. This licensed examination is administered independently by the testing agency not affiliated with the university. Rector Amosova did not conclude a proper contract with the testing centre, thus failing the students.

Students had become “hostages of the situation”, says Acting Minister Suprun. Bogomolets National Medical University was the only medical university that failed to give students the opportunity to take this mandatory independent test, she said. On that same day, 20 February 2018, the ministry appointed a new acting rector, Mikhail Zakharash, to replace suspended rector Amosova.

The response of the university administration was swift, and massive. Around thirty students blocked Zakharash from accessing the office. Furthermore, the central entrance of the administrative building with the rector’s office was chained, and posters put up there demanded the removal of Acting Minister Suprun. The university administration announced an indefinite strike of the entire university and also sent students and faculty to the ministry to protest the dismissal of Amosova.

The university administration also submitted a claim to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, demanding they investigate possible corruption and abuse of authority by Acting Minister Suprun. “The minister forces us to conclude illegal contracts,” the administration said.

The ministry called the strike a provocation and tried to assure the students that it respects the principles of university autonomy. Two days later, the strike was over, as it did not gain support from many students. Within 10 days of the initial suspension, the court reinstated Amosova as the rector and said that both the suspension and appointment of a new rector were illegal.

But the battle did not end there. The ministry filed another claim, demanding to overrule the initial court decision and suspending Rector Amosova yet again.

Acting Minister Suprun said that the court simply does not consider her as the minister and thus rejects the ministry’s claims.

On 31 March, Rector Amosova said that the countersuit was ready and she was just waiting on the official order of the ministry on her termination in order to proceed, presuming it had been held up in traffic. Although her contract was for seven years, the termination came after only three years in office. The new rector will be selected in September of 2018, after the start of the new academic year.

Declaration in Odessa

At the end of April, the rector of Odessa National Medical University, Valery Zaporozhan, who has led the university since 1994, was suspended by the Ministry of Healthcare for alleged corruption and temporarily replaced by the provost for international relations, Valeriya Marichereda. The police alleged intentionally incorrect entries in the mandatory annual income-and-wealth declaration.

Rector Zaporozhan and his wife own two apartments in Odessa of 780 square metres (around 8,000 square feet), a house in Kiev of 580 square metres (around 6,000 square feet), two new Toyota Corollas and around US$1 million in bank accounts. This is quite a remarkable amount of property for a civil servant by Ukrainian standards. But just a few days later, the court in Odessa dismissed the claim and closed the case.

This is not the first time Rector Zaporozhan has been the focus of the media. About three years ago, in 2015, he was assaulted and beaten by two criminals with baseball bats. The assault was later qualified as an attempted murder. Zaporozhan linked the assault with his anti-corruption activities. He says that he chaired the anti-corruption commission in the National Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine and that the attempt on his life took place right before the report of the commission was due in Kiev. The academy denies the very existence of such a commission.

A year later, in 2016, there was a scandal related to extortion practised in two dental clinics linked to the university. The state security services were investigating an organised extortion ring in which dentists had to extort money from patients and pay regular protection to a private foundation.

Both dental clinics function under the auspices of Odessa National Medical University and the Institute of Dentistry of the National Academy of Medical Sciences. It appears that the feud between Rector Zaporozhan, the academy, the ministry and law enforcement agencies, based on allegations of corruption, will continue.

Suprun aka Sisyphus

The clash between the US physician turned Ukraine’s acting minister of health and the country’s medical academic mafia is unlikely to turn into anything productive. Healthcare in Ukraine is free, or at least so says the Constitution. In reality, however, there is no free healthcare in the country. Moreover, there is no health insurance either.

Since extortion, embezzlement and fraud dominate the landscape of Ukrainian hospitals and clinics, why should medical universities be any different?

At present, the Ministry of Healthcare is conducting required background checks of prospective rectors of Donetsk National Medical University (relocated) and Vinnitsa National Medical University before filling these two vacancies. The ministry even has its own anti-corruption programme. At present, however, Suprun is more akin to Sisyphus in her attempt to fight Ukraine’s medical mafia.

Ararat L Osipian is a fellow of the Institute of International Education, United Nations Plaza, New York, and honorary associate at the department of political science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and holds a PhD in education and human development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, where he came as a fellow of the US Department of State.