The legislators backing Washington State University’s bid to establish its own Spokane-based medical school said Tuesday the rural doctor shortage is so severe the state needs more than one approach to physician training.
“This is something that is long overdue,” state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said of plans to seek legislative removal of legal restrictions designating the University of Washington as the state’s only medical school.
Co-sponsoring the effort is state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, who called the restriction “archaic” and said the state needs to do a better job of training doctors willing to work in rural communities.
“Our current system isn’t working,” Riccelli said, adding WSU is committed to changing that. “It’s very clear that we need to move forward with a new model.”
But while they pledged their backing to the WSU effort, both also said they support the University of Washington’s proposal to double the size of its Spokane branch, which is part of a five-state physician training program and until October was operated in partnership with WSU. The universities parted ways over differing views of how best to meet Washington’s need for more doctors.
Baumgartner and Riccelli predicted strong legislative support for an initial allocation of $2.5 million over the next two years that would enable WSU to seek accreditation for an independent medical school at its Spokane campus. Ongoing annual operations would require future allocations, but they said those costs would be fully debated and scrutinized down the road.
Both said they also will support an additional $8 million that UW says it would need to expand its physician training in Spokane, which currently is provided in facilities owned by WSU.
Baumgartner said he sees no reason that both universities couldn’t find a way to continue sharing the facilities, at least in the short term, noting that the state’s taxpayers built them.
Meanwhile, WSU backers downplayed Monday’s announcement that UW is looking at Gonzaga University as a potential partner in its planned Spokane expansion.
WSU President Elson Floyd, for example, said he was assured by Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh in a meeting Tuesday morning that the discussions are in preliminary stages and that the decision to publicly announce the possibility was simply intended as a way to keep the community apprised of what’s happening.
But Floyd said he remains convinced that the state needs both an expanded UW program and an independent WSU medical school.
“In my judgment it takes both,” he said Tuesday.
Studies predict Washington will need at least an additional 1,700 doctors by 2030. That need is particularly acute in rural communities. More than half of Washington’s counties have so few doctors they’re considered critically underserved, according to a study conducted for WSU.
Additionally, an estimated 250 state residents who apply for admission to UW’s medical school are turned away and have to go out of state to get trained, according to figures supplied by WSU.
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