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WSU medical school in Spokane gets legislative support

OLYMPIA – Identical bills that could pave the way for Washington State University to start its own medical school in Spokane were filed Wednesday in the Senate and House.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, a Democrat, and Sen. Mike Baumgartner, a Republican, introduced matching legislation to remove the provision in state law that gives medical school education exclusively to the University of Washington.

The bills were filed as UW announced its “leadership team” for curriculum for Spokane, with local physician William Sayres Jr. being selected as assistant dean. WSU, meanwhile, is advertising for faculty for the medical school it wants to start, hoping to recruit from the local medical community.

In the works since late last year, the legislators delayed introducing the bills until Wednesday to gather bipartisan support from around the state.

Riccelli’s bill, HB 1559, already has 60 co-sponsors in the 98-member House, with support from all 10 House members whose districts are completely or partly in Spokane County. Baumgartner’s bill, SB 5487, has 17 co-sponsors in the 49-member Senate. Both bills have co-sponsors in Puget Sound districts as well as Eastern Washington.

The bills, which don’t deal with the finances for the two schools, are expected to get their first reading this week and be assigned to a committee for a hearing.

Since 1917, state law has put limits on some of the academic “major lines” the two universities can offer. Those restrictive majors have changed over the decades, but right now only UW can offer medicine. The bills introduced Wednesday would remove medicine, as well as forestry, from the majors exclusive to UW and add them to the list of majors available to both of the state’s major four-year research universities.

UW operates a section of its School of Medicine at the WSU-Spokane campus, with 20 students per yearand has plans to expand to 40 students in 2016. It is seeking $8 million for the coming two-year budget cycle.

WSU is proposing to start a separate medical school program on the Spokane campus, with the first class of 40 students starting in 2017. It wants $2.5 million to complete the accreditation process, and already is advertising for faculty for its proposed program.

Prior to last year, the two universities cooperated on UW’s program that accepts and trains medical students for five Northwest and Western states. In October, they agreed to go their separate ways and not oppose each other’s proposals.

Legislators, meanwhile, have expressed concerns over the need for more family and general practice physicians, and a shortage of doctors in rural areas. Each school contends it has the best plan for filling those needs.

WSU President Elson Floyd and UW President Michael Young are scheduled to appear before the Senate Higher Education Committee today to explain their respective school’s plans for training doctors in Spokane. But neither school has money for its plans in Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed 2015-17 budget.

David Schumacher, director of the state Office of Financial Management, told a group of government, business and educational leaders Wednesday in Olympia that Inslee concluded the issue “wasn’t ripe for a decision” when the budget was put together in December. The group, part of a lobbying contingent on an annual trip coordinated by Greater Spokane Inc., has medical school expansion in Spokane prominently on its list of issues.

“We spent a good deal of time talking about it,” Schumacher told the group. “We weren’t ready to take a side.”

But both universities are pressing ahead with their separate plans, even without assurances of funding. UW announced Wednesday Sayres would join its team to oversee and lead faculty for Spokane-based medical students. WSU is accepting applications for about a dozen teaching positions, many of them part-time faculty that would be filled by area physicians in different medical specialties.

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