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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

WSU med school backers seek ‘clean’ bill

OLYMPIA – A bill to give Washington State University permission to start its own medical school might seem like a locomotive sitting at the station, ready to steam down the track. After all, it’s got two-thirds of the state House of Representatives as co-sponsors.

Now supporters must work to keep extra cars from being attached to that train.

Since the start of the session, supporters have pursued a two-step process through the Legislature for a medical school WSU wants to start on its Spokane campus. First, change a law passed in 1917 that says the University of Washington is the only state-funded institution that can offer medicine as a major field of study and give that authority to WSU as well. After that’s done, seek money in the budget to start that process.

“This is strictly about the policy,” said Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, prime sponsor of a bill to remove a section of state law.

Similar bills have worked through committees in each chamber with 65 co-sponsors in the House and 17 in the Senate. But popularity comes with a price.

The House bill has such strong support that many legislators consider it sure to pass and want to add something to it, Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said Tuesday. He’s not ready to concede it is a sure thing and argues if anything gets added to fairly simple legislation, it is likely to lose support and have less chance of passing.

In committee hearings, Riccelli has fought off an effort to require the Legislature to set aside more than $33 million for other proposals to increase the number of doctors in the state before WSU can start a med school. He also got a Seattle legislator to drop a proposed amendment requiring the new school to ensure students being trained at a Catholic hospital would get training in birth control and abortion procedures by getting a written promise from WSU officials that such instruction would occur.

“We want a clean bill,” Riccelli said.

More amendments could surface before the bill comes up for a floor debate, including one that would limit noncompete clauses physicians can be required to sign when being hired at hospitals, clinics or medical corporations. House Finance Committee Chairman Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, may introduce such an amendment to keep WSU and UW from putting onerous noncompete restrictions on faculty they hire so they can’t move back and forth between institutions.

“If we’re going to have two medical schools practically next to each other in Spokane, I want them cooperating with each other, not competing with each other,” Carlyle said of the two universities.

On Tuesday, he discussed the amendment with Riccelli and Ormsby, who tried to persuade him not to push that change to the bill.

House Bill 1559 has no money attached to it, said Ormsby, who serves as vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Giving WSU the money it says it needs to obtain accreditation for the med school will be a separate decision to be made in the budget. Carlyle’s concerns may be valid, but they should come up in budget discussions, he said.

Giving WSU regents the permission to seek accreditation for a medical school is tantamount to starting the school, Carlyle argued. “It’s like being pregnant,” he said; if the bill passes, the baby will show up eventually.

No, countered Ormsby; giving WSU the money in the budget means a new med school baby will show up eventually. He agreed the noncompete clauses are a problem, and said he might support Carlyle’s effort to limit them with language in the budget.

An amendment already filed for the bill would remove all restrictions on the majors the two universities could offer. Two amendments have been filed that would slow or derail the new med school. One would require any money appropriated for UW’s multistate physician education program in Spokane “be used for the original purpose,” which means WSU wouldn’t be able to use money or facilities originally set aside for its now-defunct joint venture.

The other wouldn’t let WSU spend any money originally set aside for the UW-led program in Spokane until a state board studied the need for more doctors and other health care professionals in Washington and determined the best way to fill them. The study would be due in December.

Just because amendments are filed doesn’t mean they automatically get a vote. When the bill was being considered by the House Appropriations Committee, the chairman there had drafted an amendment that set down three financial requirements to be met before WSU could set up a medical school: The state would have to set aside $16 million to develop more residencies in family practice and $8.3 million for scholarships and loan repayments of key specialties, and give UW $9.4 million to support 120 students at its program in Spokane.

Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, withdrew the amendment before the bill came to a vote, but House Higher Education Committee Chairman Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, and a member of the budget committee, said he considers the three issues those dollar amounts represent to be higher priorities for increasing the number of doctors in Eastern Washington than a new med school operated by WSU.

But the bill moved easily through the budget committee, and Riccelli said he believes the proposal has even stronger support in the full House. But only in its current form.

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