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$300,000 sought to study creation of medical school

BOISE – Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas has asked members of a panel that doles out the state’s share of a multibillion-dollar class-action tobacco settlement to spend $300,000 to study creating the state’s first medical school.

“We don’t have a shortage of students who are interested in health professions, and that’s a wonderful thing,” Vailas said Wednesday. “We do have a shortage of the number of slots.”

Idaho currently gets about $24 million annually from a 1998 settlement with the nation’s five largest tobacco companies. The money is put into an account called the “Millennium Fund,” and lawmakers allocate 5 percent each year to spend on smoking prevention and related health programs.

Legislators on the joint Millennium Fund Committee will weigh how to divvy up this year’s $2.5 million in available settlement money, said state Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, the panel’s chairman.

The committee heard several proposals Wednesday and will offer a recommendation to the budget committee by February, Lake said.

“We’ll see,” he said. “We’re a growing state, and there are those out there that think we need our own medical school.”

The state Board of Education voted in December to ask the Legislature to pay for a study that would gauge the “feasibility and viability” of building a degree-granting medical school program within Idaho’s borders.

Vailas, as president of Idaho State, the university with the state’s health teaching mission, said he was lobbying for a statewide study, not necessarily for a medical school on the school’s Pocatello campus.

He is a former National Institute of Health fellow and NASA researcher, chosen as Idaho State’s president last year largely on the basis of his medical credentials.

“This has nothing to do with any university,” he said. “It’s a rationale for the state.”

If a study were approved, the Board of Education would hire an outside consulting firm to analyze the cost, location, challenges and other specifics of building a medical school.

Idaho is one of only a handful of states without its own medical school. Others include Wyoming, Alaska and Montana, and for many years all four states have belonged to a cooperative program that reserves spots for their students at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

Each year, 18 Idaho students are admitted to the school. Another eight annually attend the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City through a separate partnership.

Idaho subsidizes participating students’ tuition to offset the higher out-of-state fees. But a homegrown medical school could provide more return on Idaho’s investment – providing a pipeline of doctors, researchers and health-related industries into the state, Vailas said.

Many Gem State students who receive their training in Seattle or Salt Lake City never return, and competition for Idaho’s available seats is fierce, he said.

According to 2005 figures from the American Medical Association, Idaho ranks 49th in the nation in physicians per capita. The doctor shortage is exacerbated by Idaho’s growth – the state was the third-fastest growing in the country in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Some legislators questioned whether the study would overlook options such as buying more seats for Idaho students at the University of Washington and other medical schools or persuading an existing medical school to build a satellite campus in Idaho.

“I’m trying to figure out if it’s a broad-based or narrow-based study,” said state Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise. “It seems like if we are going to invest this much money in a study, the more information we get out of the study would be better.”