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UW, WSU to end medical training partnership

The state’s two leading universities are parting ways over medical education and will compete in the Legislature for money to offer their own physician training programs in Spokane.

Under an agreement announced Friday evening, Washington State University will push to establish an independent medical school at Spokane’s Riverpoint campus and withdraw from the five-state doctor training program operated in partnership with the University of Washington’s existing medical school. The University of Washington, meanwhile, will push for continued expansion of the five-state program’s Spokane branch and won’t oppose the WSU effort.

The agreement is intended to end months of bickering between the universities over control of medical education and is seen by community and political leaders as a major step forward in Spokane’s efforts to create a regional training and research hub.

Although dissolving a longtime partnership to pursue different visions of the best approach to expanded medical education, leaders of both universities asserted their commitment to Spokane.

“The UW remains fully committed to immediately expanding our medical school in Spokane, including a commitment to grow the research, industry commercialization and medical residency opportunities that will ensure a vibrant, health care economy well into the future,” UW President Michael Young said in prepared remarks.

WSU President Elson Floyd said: “We also have a unique opportunity to further grow our state’s health care economy by fully utilizing the exceptional medical talent we have and by building on the tremendous investment made by the state and community in our research campus, WSU Health Sciences at Spokane.”

It will be up to the Legislature to decide whether to find money for both pitches or choose between them.

“Overall, I think this is a very positive step for Spokane,” said state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who serves on the Education Committee and as vice chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. He is seeking re-election next month.

He said that although he would have preferred that the universities continue to collaborate, he believes the Legislature will be supportive, noting lawmakers would have to find just $2.5 million in a $36 billion state budget for WSU to begin establishing its own medical school. The Riverpoint campus already has ample facilities to accommodate 120 medical students.

Lawmakers first would have to amend a 1906 statute that designated UW as the only state university allowed to operate a medical school.

That prohibition, Baumgartner said, has hurt Washington overall by preventing WSU from competing for medical research and other grants that would benefit the region.

State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, who serves as vice chairman of the House Health Care Committee, also said he believes the Legislature will be open to WSU’s plan.

“I think today is a win for Spokane,” said Riccelli, who is facing a re-election challenge next month as well. “I’m not going to characterize this as an easy lift in tough budget times, but there’s broad interest and support for what WSU is trying to do.”

Community leaders have made expanded medical education at the Riverpoint campus a top priority for years, lobbying the Legislature for millions to construct and equip advanced training facilities. WSU has moved several of its health science programs from Pullman to the Spokane campus and worked with UW to expand the five-state physician training program known as WWAMI – which refers to Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho – at the Riverpoint campus.

But this summer, enrollment in a pilot program aimed at keeping WWAMI medical students in Spokane during their second year of training fell far short of what state lawmakers and others envisioned, causing some to question UW’s commitment.

The universities still are negotiating some terms of the dissolved partnership, including how to divide remaining allocations for joint operation of the WWAMI partnership and joint-use or potential lease arrangements for UW’s use of WSU facilities at the Riverpoint campus.