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WSU medical school in Spokane gets Senate OK

OLYMPIA – Washington State University should soon have the authority to start a new medical school on its Spokane campus. The question now is, will it have the money to do that?

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 47-1 to send Gov. Jay Inslee a bill repealing a 1917 law that says only the University of Washington can operate a state-sponsored medical school. Considering bills had passed both chambers in identical forms by large margins in the past month, that result wasn’t really in doubt.

Inslee’s office said the governor expects to take action on the bill next week during a visit to Spokane, although details must still be determined. His staff doesn’t confirm a bill will be signed before it happens, but Inslee has already said he wouldn’t stand in the way of the legislative decision, and he’s unlikely to travel 280 miles to veto a bill.

Some indication of whether WSU will get the $2.5 million it is requesting – to seek accreditation for the new school and begin hiring faculty – could surface late Friday morning when House Democrats release their proposal for the 2015-17 operating budget, which includes money for public university programs. Although the House also gave the authorization bill strong support on March 9, among the “No” votes were the leaders of the Appropriations, Finance and Health Care committees.

After Wednesday’s vote, supporters were buoyed by the fact the proposal drew votes from members across the state in both chambers.

“We’ve had more bipartisan support and more fun in working this bill than anything I’ve done in the Legislature,” said Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, the sponsor of the Senate bill.

WSU President Elson Floyd watched the vote from the Senate gallery, then joined legislators after the passage in Majority Leader Mark Schoesler’s office for a celebration.

“Thank you for your confidence and trust in WSU,” Floyd said after a round of hugs and handshakes. “We will deliver.”

But to deliver WSU will need money in the same budget in which the University of Washington seeks money to expand the number of medical school students it has in Spokane in a branch of the five-state consortium known as WWAMI for the first letters of the states involved: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. 

Inslee’s initial budget proposal had no money for either, and whether the House budget proposal has money for either, both or neither, the Legislature is still at least a month away from settling on the final operating budget for the next two years.

Baumgartner was confident after Wednesday’s Senate vote, saying $2.5 million is a small amount to find in a budget of more than $37 billion. That amount will grow to tens of millions after a new medical school begins training at least 40 med students a year in a four-year program, but “if the state wants more doctors, it has to be willing to pay for them,” he said.

 WWAMI has 40 first-year students and nine second-year students on the WSU-Spokane campus, and until last fall the two universities worked together on that program. When WSU announced plans to start its own medical school, UW officials canceled the partnership and began discussing a new arrangement with Gonzaga University just across the Spokane River.

Debate on the bill centered on the state’s growing need for doctors, which supporters said warrants a second medical school. They stayed away from the ongoing friction between the two universities over operating in Spokane.  

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, spoke of a coming “drought of health care” in some areas as the state’s population grows and said a second medical school could result in a $1 billion boost for economic development in Spokane and the state. Schoesler, R-Ritzville, called the WSU plan the next step forward for that care.

The state already has “one of the finest medical schools in the country” at UW, said Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.

“The issue, obviously, is whether or not to have a second medical school in the state of Washington,” Bailey said. “I think the time has come.” 

Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, the lone no vote, said later that while the initial startup costs for the WSU med school are small, the ongoing costs once up and running are substantial. The state would have more success in drawing doctors to under-served areas with a program that paid off their student loans for every year they worked in such a location in Washington.

“There are better ways of spending that money” to improve health care than starting a new school, Pedersen added, and expanding WWAMI in Spokane “would absolutely be one of them.”


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