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Legislators want 1917 law revised to allow WSU med school expansion

A pair of Spokane lawmakers will propose legislation to establish the state’s second medical school in Spokane and put it under the control of Washington State University.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, a Democrat, and Sen. Mike Baumgartner, a Republican, are to unveil legislation this morning that would change a nearly century-old law that limits medical education to the University of Washington. Their proposal also provides $2.5 million for WSU to seek accreditation for the new school on the Riverpoint Campus, which would concentrate on family and rural medicine disciplines.

“At this point there’s no reduction on anything (for UW Medical School),” Riccelli said. “We want to grow medical education any way possible.”

They plan to introduce legislation in both chambers that would amend a 1917 law that places medical education at UW, allowing WSU to have a separate school. 

“This is not a radical idea,” Riccelli said. “There are plenty of states that have more than one medical school.”

Baumgartner called the law outdated. Finding $2.5 million in a two-year budget of about $37 billion won’t be “a significant challenge,” he added.

UW would continue to receive state funds to operate a portion of the multistate medical school in Spokane, he said. The university is seeking about $8 million for the next two years to train medical students in Spokane, and they aren’t proposing any change to that.

Norm Arkans, UW spokesman, said the legislation is “completely not unexpected” and seems to be in line with an agreement, or memorandum of understanding, the two universities are negotiating to offer separate medical education in Spokane. That agreement is expected to be completed before the legislative session starts in January.

UW wouldn’t object to changing the 1917 law that grants it the sole authority to offer medical education, Arkans said: “That’s completely up to the Legislature.”

The two universities have conflicting studies that project the cost of a new medical school, and determine whether it’s the best route to increasing the number of doctors in rural areas and to serve a growing demand for family practice physicians rather than specialists.

The first class of 40 students for the WSU medical school would start in fall 2017, according to a timeline prepared by the university. By the time that first class graduates in 2021, the goal would be to have a yearly class of 120 medical students in the school, with most of them interested in practicing in family medicine or in rural areas.

The two legislators hope to use their positions on key committees to push the legislation through in what’s expected to be a tight budget year focused on major increases in improvements for the state’s K-12 schools. Baumgartner is vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and Riccelli is vice chairman of the House Health Care Committee.

Legislative leaders have been guarded in their comments about a second medical school, saying they want to see firm proposals. Riccelli said the concept has support from legislators outside of Spokane, particularly from rural areas and outside Seattle. King County has about 27 percent of the state’s population but more than 50 percent of its physicians, he said.

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