A few days ago, Gene Taylor challenged Dr. Shelby Thames to develop a medical program that had one overriding purpose.
"To team with the Veterans Administration and to put a teaching hospital on that site at Gulfport," the congressman said, pointing toward the Gulfport VA complex.
Two dozen buildings sit on that site. It overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. The VA is thinking about closing it. Congressman Taylor is trying to save it. He believes turning the hospital complex into a USM medical teaching facility would do just that.
"If the University of Southern Mississippi, which is the university for south Mississppi is willing to do so," said Taylor, "then we should work with them."
Dr. Thames said his university was up to the challenge.
"We're going to talk to the VA personnel, talk to the veterans, talk to the business leaders of the gulf coast, to everyone," the USM president said, "to try and get a total community input on what the community would like to see Southern Mississippi do."
The challenge is to come up with a curriculum that meets the needs of the Gulfport hospital complex, its nearly 4,000 patients, and USM.
Rep. Taylor knows he has several mountains to climb before he can get the Gulfport VA turned into a USM teaching hospital. The college board must sign off on the idea. The Mississippi legislature must back it. Congress has to support it. So does the VA. Taylor met with national VA leaders before going public with his idea.
"They're excited about the program," he said. "Anything they can do to improve healthcare for veterans they're going to be for."
The commission that's analyzing if any VAs should close is supposed to release its recommendation next month.