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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU Medical School, Empire Health Foundation share $10.5 million grant to expand rural health care access

Kirk Schulz, President, WSU, left, Dr. John Tomkowiak, Founding Dean, WSU College of Medicine, Jeff Roe, President & CEO, Premera Blue Cross and Jeffery Bell, Board Chair, Empire Health Foundation, gather Tuesday at the WSU Pharmaceutical & Biomedical Sciences Building after announcing a Premera Blue Cross award of $10.5 million in grants over the next four years to Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and Empire Health Foundation. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Premera Blue Cross announced $10.5 million in grant funding to Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and the Empire Health Foundation on Wednesday to help the university create residency programs and to help the foundation support rural communities in need of capital or infrastructure improvements.

For the WSU College of Medicine, the $5.5 million investment comes just in time to help start the accreditation process for the medical residency programs the school is working to create, with its first class of graduates set to match into the programs as soon as 2021.

“We’re cutting really close up against accreditation timelines, but that’s our goal and that’s what we’re going to be working towards, in part because our students are asking for it,” said Dr. John Tomkowiak, founding dean at the medical school. “They love our mission and want to continue that through the rest of their training.”

Medical students at WSU represent 59 communities from 20 counties in the state, Tomkowiak said. Research shows that where future physicians study for medical school can impact whether they practice in that same state. If they are able to stay in the same state for medical school and for their residency, about 70% will stay in the state they trained in, Tomkowiak said.

Residencies are hard to come by on the eastern side of Washington. Tomkowiak said that just 12 of the 170 residency programs offered in the state are east of the Cascades.

The WSU College of Medicine is working to open these residency programs in rural parts of the state. The grant could enable the college to open more than one program. Tomkowiak estimates that it takes about $2.5 million to get a program off the ground.

“We really want to look at rural and underserved areas to open these programs,” Tomkowiak said. “There are some real challenges just from an accreditation point of view, in terms of making sure you have the right kind of training environment for your trainees.”

The WSU College of Medicine has established about 100 community partners that it intends to collaborate with as it works to open the new residency programs. The programs could take three to five students per year, and for a family medicine residency, that would mean about 15 students once it’s at capacity.

Premera Blue Cross also awarded $5 million to Empire Health Foundation to use for grants to rural health care providers in their seven-county region, which includes Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Lincoln, Adams and Whitman counties.

Jeffrey Bell, board chair of the Empire Health Foundation, said the foundation will form a committee and administer the $5 million through a grant-making process that rural health care providers can apply for. In rural communities, access to health care sometimes comes with infrastructure or equipment expenses.

Premera Blue Cross CEO Jeff Roe said that sometimes, in rural health care settings, access to some of the more basic things can inhibit providers’ ability to deliver care.

He gave the example of a community in rural Alaska that needed generator-powered lights to allow helicopters to land, so patients needing care could be flown out or doctors could fly in to provide care.

“That’s not a half-a-million-dollar item, that’s $25,000 to $50,000, which for a financially strapped facility is unattainable. Well, with a little assistance, we can actually change the way they deliver care and the way they get care,” he said. “Our intent here is to step in and help on those basics.”

The donations from Premera Blue Cross are a part of a $100 million, five-year initiative, wherein the nonprofit seeks to invest in solutions to homelessness and access to rural health care in Washington and Alaska. Going forward, the grant awards will focus on physician and nurse capacity, integration of health care systems, mental and behavioral health, and small equipment grants. Bell said the Premera funding will go a long way in rural communities and tribes with which the Empire Health Foundation works.

“We found that these health inequities in rural communities are simply unacceptable to us,” Bell said. “We believe at the foundation that health is a fundamental human right no matter where you happen to live.”

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.