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Senate passage puts WSU step closer to medical school

OLYMPIA – For the second time in less than a day, Washington State University’s hopes for its own medical school got a major boost Tuesday as the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that would grant the permission – but not the money – to make that happen.

Coming after the House overwhelmingly passed an identical bill Monday night, two questions now confront WSU’s plans.

One is technical: Which of the two bills will be used for one more vote that would send it to Gov. Jay Inslee?

The other is financial: How much money, if any, will the Legislature set aside for the next two years?

The answer to the first should come in the next few days as sponsors decide which bill should be put to a vote in the other chamber, where it would expect to get the same result.

“Whichever gets to the governor’s desk is fine by me,” said Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, the prime sponsor of the House bill, after watching from the wings as the Senate voted 45-4 on its version of the bill.

The answer to the second won’t be known until the Legislature finishes work on the two-year general fund budget, and that spending plan gets Inslee’s signature.

WSU is asking for $2.5 million to hire faculty and seek accreditation in that budget. But down the road, a new medical school that admits 120 students a year could cost taxpayers an additional $40 million a year for the state’s share of those students’ education, opponents say. WSU officials say the cost would be $28.8 million a year, and not until early in the next decade after the school gradually ramps up to that level. 

In committee hearings and throughout the debate in both chambers, supporters emphasized that all these “policy” bills do is repeal a 1917 law that gives the University of Washington sole authority to operate a state-sponsored medical school. The bills promise no money to do that.

Supporters emphasized the state’s need for more doctors, and downplayed the recent competition between the two universities over expanded medical education in Spokane.

“This shouldn’t become the Apple Cup of medical education,” said Sen. Mike Baumgartner, a Spokane Republican and the Senate bill’s prime sponsor. “This is really a choice for more doctors.”

The proposal is the most bipartisan issue, with the most statewide support, that he has seen in his five years in the Senate, Baumgartner said.

“I want to be clear that this is not about either-or. This is about and-both,” said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.

Other supporters said they want to make sure that the UW medical school program – which Tuesday was named the best in the country for training primary care, rural medicine and family practice doctors by U.S. News and World Reports – is not harmed by a new WSU school. WWAMI, as the five-state medical training program is known, will need more money in the 2015-17 budget to continue training 40 students a year in Spokane, said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.

“In the budget, that is where the heavy lift will be,” Frockt said.

Sen. Jaime Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat who has most of the UW campus in his district, voted against the bill Tuesday. During the debate he said he felt the need to “interrupt the love fest” on the bill and say the best way to get more doctors was not creating a brand-new medical school that won’t turn out a fully trained doctor until sometime in the next decade.

A more effective way to spend the state’s money would be to increase the money available to help repay loans for new doctors practicing in needed areas, expand the number of residency programs in the state where medical school graduates get their advanced training, and “if we had the money to spend … we certainly have the ability to scale up the UW medical school.”

Key votes against the bill in the House – which will write the first draft of the Legislature’s budget – included the chairmen of that chamber’s tax and budget panels. In the Senate, however, the top Republicans and Democrats who will essentially rewrite the budget the House passes all voted in favor of giving WSU permission to start a medical school.


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