The famed Menninger Clinic appears to be no closer than it was last fall to signing a final agreement for its controversial 625-mile relocation to the sprawling Texas Medical Center in Houston.
The lengthy delay has fueled speculation that there may be some prenuptial problems with the expected union between the Topeka, Kan.-based psychiatric center and its two prospective partners, the Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Health Care System, both in Houston.
When Menninger stunned its hometown in late September with a surprise announcement of its move, officials expected a final agreement to be hammered out no later than February. In a press release last year, Baylor, which pledged to add millions to Menninger's endowment, also said a final deal was expected within "several months."
Now more than half a year after the announcement, the three sides still haven't come close to signing an agreement, observers said.
"We hear there's been some problems," said one source with close ties to the Houston medical community. "We've also heard that Baylor is having trouble raising money. The feeling is that there's really not the enthusiasm in Texas for the kind of things that Menninger offers, which is mostly (treatment for) inpatient substance abuse.
"If they were into cancer research, that's one thing, but (psychiatric services) are a tougher sell."
Another source, who was asked about the delay, said, "I think Menninger is getting nervous."
Roger Verdon, a spokesman for Menninger, said there have been no serious problems in the negotiations and that Menninger's transition to its new home is still expected to be completed sometime in 2002.
"What we've got are three entities continuing to talk about the details," said Verdon, who provided no specific information about the delay. "We just haven't been able to work out the details. There's no definitive word on exactly the date we'll be moving."
The delay also was downplayed by officials at Baylor, who appeared somewhat less certain than Verdon about the inevitability of the partnership.
"Basically, we're all hopeful this will go through," said Dorey Zodrow, a spokeswoman for the Baylor College of Medicine. "But the negotiation process hasn't been completed; the business plan hasn't been completed.
"But I'm really not aware of any problem. Every time you've got three groups dealing with decisions, with letters of agreements, with a change of services, it takes a long time to work through the process."
The 75-year-old Menninger Clinic, a 263-bed facility treating psychiatric and addiction disorders, has long been acclaimed as one of the top centers of its kind in the nation, if not the world. But recurring financial troubles-and a $3 million deficit in 1999-forced it to seek an alliance with well-heeled suitors such as Baylor, a private university with a $1 billion endowment, and Methodist, a teaching hospital with a $2 billion endowment.
Menninger's two new partners have promised to increase the clinic's current endowment of about $104 million to $300 million by the time it completes the planned move to the Texas Medical Center, a 20 million-square-foot development of medical providers and research institutions that ranks as the world's largest health complex. The medical center is expected to expand to about 30 million square feet over the next decade.
Despite the absence of a final agreement, Menninger is moving forward with plans to transfer some of its services to other providers in Kansas. In March, Menninger transferred its 48-bed acute inpatient psychiatric programs to 313-bed Stormont-Vail HealthCare, a hospital in Topeka.
Zodrow said part of the confusion over the delay may stem from unrealistic timelines provided by officials at Menninger.
"I think they're very anxious to get closure," she said.