Democratic state Senate challenger Rich Cowan threw his support Thursday behind Washington State University’s bid to operate its own medical school without having to rely on the University of Washington.
“We need a world-class medical school headquartered here in Spokane,” Cowan said. “A WSU medical school with its own mission that serves our community and the surrounding area.”
His comments, made during a Rotary 21 debate with incumbent state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, come as the state’s two largest universities continue sparring over control of Spokane’s expanding medical education programs.
Baumgartner, seeking a second term in the Legislature, has long favored a continued partnership between WSU and UW, saying one brings the needed enthusiasm and the other the necessary experience.
But he indicated Thursday it may be moot because the schools are actively trying to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution.
“This is a beneficial discussion for Spokane,” said Baumgartner, explaining he invested a lot of his own political capital into helping secure the final legislative allocations needed for expansion of medical facilities at Spokane’s Riverpoint campus.
He and Cowan both describe expanded Spokane-based medical school opportunities as a crucial piece of their economic development platforms.
The UW operates a medical school in Seattle and partners with WSU in Spokane as part of a five-state program that trains doctors for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. This summer, enrollment in a pilot program aimed at keeping medical students in Spokane during their second year of training fell far short of what state lawmakers and others envisioned.
Last month, WSU announced it will seek state approval to open its own medical school in Spokane, saying it would focus on increasing the number of physicians practicing in underserved rural areas. UW was openly critical of the WSU-commissioned study that concluded a new, independent medical school would be a cost-effective and viable option, saying it was flawed.
But a group of representatives from both universities have continued to meet and discuss options, which could include severing ties and going their own ways.
WSU President Elson Floyd acknowledged Thursday that the two universities are nearing agreement, though he said discussions still are underway and declined to identify the remaining sticking points. Floyd said he believes it’s only a matter of days before a final agreement is in place.
“These are very complicated discussions,” Floyd said.
University of Washington spokesman Norman Arkans said it’s his understanding that the schools have reached a “mutual understanding” but that some of the details are still being sorted out before a joint announcement is made.
Both universities have considerable pull in the Legislature, but observers fear a long, protracted battle over medical education could hurt more than just the schools.
Baumgartner said he believes the WSU proposal will get a lot of attention in Olympia.
“I think the Legislature is going to look very favorably on this,” he said Thursday.
Meanwhile, Cowan said his support for the WSU proposal was based on the model that it’s proposing.
“They have the physical plant,” he said, referring to WSU’s new facilities at the Riverpoint campus. “They have the plan. We’re not talking about having to add infrastructure.”
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