Our Voice: Tri-City delegation should back WSU med school

Two Spokane legislators have officially embraced Washington State University’s plans to establish a new medical school, and so begins the political contest between the Cougars and the University of Washington.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, a Democrat and vice chairman of the House Health Care & Wellness Committee and Sen. Mike Baumgartner, a Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, have unveiled a bill that would change a 1917 law allowing only UW to run a medical school in Washington. Their legislation also provides $2.5 million for WSU to develop its own medical school, which would put an emphasis on rural health care.

The WSU program would be based in Spokane, which explains the early bi-partisan support by Spokane politicians. But other legislators should back WSU’s effort, especially those from the eastside of the state whose constituents have much to gain from a medical school this side of the Cascades. The Tri-City delegation, in particular, should support WSU’s proposal. Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, who was recently re-elected, already offered his support during his campaign, and we would like to see our other state legislators join him on this crucial issue.

All signs point to this being an intense fight as the two schools enter the legislative ring next year. WSU officials believe there is a dire need for more physicians in the region and that there is room enough for two medical school programs. UW officials naturally want to protect their own, so they now say they plan to expand, which they claim will be more cost effective than launching another medical school.

It will be a financial battle between the Cougs and Dawgs, with each likely touting its own research and contradicting each other. What is particularly bothersome, however, is that only now, after WSU has decided to fill a need that has been going unfilled for years, have UW officials decided to step up their own program.

The UW medical school serves students from Washington in addition to those from Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. The WWAMI Medical Education program was created in the early 1980s and offers a set number of slots for each state’s aspiring doctors, with Washington assigned 120 positions.

WSU has been a partner in WWAMI for many years, but WSU officials say UW had not increased the number of openings in decades and there is a doctor shortage in the state outside the Seattle area. There also is a high number of students who leave the region to study medicine because they can’t get into the UW program.

WSU officials believe there is enough demand to justify two state medical schools. They are going to need legislative support beyond Spokane, however, if they are to get the funding necessary to start its own program. This issue deserves united legislative backing from our east-side legislators and particularly those from the Tri-Cities.