OLYMPIA – The Washington Legislature may direct medical schools to expand the number of physician residencies in Eastern Washington to provide more doctors for rural communities and family practice.
Rep. Larry Haler, the top Republican on the House Higher Education Committee, told representatives of the University of Washington on Friday that he isn’t happy with the number of medical residents training in Eastern Washington. Of the 1,500 residencies in the state, 1,400 are in the Seattle metropolitan area, he said. They need to be spread toward the east side of the state, “and by that I’m not talking about the Bellevue area,” he added.
Haler, of Richland, is drafting legislation to set up an independent board that would oversee the distribution of medical residencies. The aim is to place a larger number in areas with physician shortages, along with tax breaks and other incentives for hospitals that set up residency programs. Studies show that residents who train in rural areas after their four years of medical school have a higher likelihood of practicing in those areas once they become doctors.
His comments came as UW representatives were outlining their goals for the 2015-17 state budget, which includes $8 million for more medical students in Spokane as part of its five-state consortium of medical training. With an extra $4 million per year, the university believes it could enroll 80 students per year at its Spokane facility, spokeswoman Genessee Adkins said.
A few minutes earlier, a Washington State University representative told the committee that the university would support a bill to change a 1917 law that says UW will provide medical education in the state. WSU is seeking $2.5 million to set up a separate medical school in Spokane, hiring a dean and applying for accreditation. The new school would help address what WSU spokesman Chris Mulick called the state’s “significant mal-distribution of primary care doctors.”
Adkins, the UW spokeswoman, said the UW program is among the best in the country for primary care, rural health care and family medicine, and is concentrating on expanding in Spokane.
The committee overseeing higher education policy in the state House of Representatives got a shortened and cordial version of the competition between the state’s two research universities over medical education in Spokane during a work session. That’s when Haler broke in to say whatever the strengths of the current UW program, it isn’t meeting the need for more doctors in Eastern Washington.
The committee, which will have a new chairman and several new members next year because of November elections, handles legislation on policy, like the proposed change in the 1917 medical school law, but has no authority over spending. But for nearly two hours Friday, representatives of the state’s major post-secondary institutions ran through their wish lists.
Haler, who will be back on the committee next year, said he will co-sponsor legislation to change the 1917 law, which is being drafted by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane.
“I support both universities,” Haler said. “I believe we need more medical schools. To me, it’s not an either-or proposition.”
But key to getting more doctors in Eastern Washington is not just more medical students in Spokane, but more residency slots outside of Seattle.
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