WSU med school doesn’t pencil out

Perhaps Rep. Chris Reykdal and Rep. Sam Hunt signed on to a House bill supporting Washington State University’s preoccupation with starting its own medical school because they are both WSU grads. We could understand that.

But we hope our Democrat representatives in the 22nd district haven’t been misled by the university’s proposal, which is based on a flawed study. It will cost taxpayers additional millions of dollars and has no hope of producing any more doctors in rural areas of our state.

The key question our legislators should ask is what problem does WSU’s request for tens of millions of dollars in state funding purport to solve?

Washington State University has been a partner for 43 years in the five-state top-rated medical education program known as WWAMI, for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. For the last 22 years, it has been rated the No. 1 medical school in the nation for primary care medical education, and also ranks No. 1 for family medicine and rural medicine.

And WWAMI delivers those results for about half of the national average cost per student ($70,000), and about 30 percent less than WSU’s own study projects a new school would cost per student ($98,000).

Why would the state want to pay more to educate a physician through an unproven WSU medical school than through a quality program like WWAMI?

Proponents of the WSU proposal argue that a national shortage of primary-care physicians is looming, particularly in rural areas such as Eastern Washington. That is true. Sometime during 2016, the number of medical school graduates will outstrip the availability of medical residency positions, where new doctors complete their education.

Even if the state Legislature appropriated money to fund the 120 medical students WSU wants to train, there is no chance of 120 new residency positions coming available. Due to the Affordable Care Act cutting back on funding to hospitals, and the end of ACA funding for the Teaching Health Centers program, there will be fewer residency positions, not more.

The federal rules for creating a residency position are particularly onerous. They require a $200,000 bond and an overwhelming volume of administrative work, so hospitals, being squeezed financially, will not add new residencies. That is a problem the U.S. Congress must solve.

The WSU medical school financial model is predicated on keeping the funds it receives as part of the WWAMI program. But if state legislators don’t transfer those funds back to WWAMI, it could no longer afford to operate its growing medical education program in Spokane. That will result in fewer, not more doctors.

Washington state already has more active physicians and primary care providers per capita than similar size states with more medical schools.

And WWAMI’s model of training medical students in rural and underserved urban areas results in a higher return rate than the national average.

In Washington state, 55 percent of WWAMI students stay and practice here, better than the 39 percent national return rate for public medical schools. Every WWAMI state exceeds the national average.

Another medical school won’t solve the doctor shortage anywhere unless and until hospitals support more residency positions.

State legislators should find it easy to resist WSU’s request. With so many pressing financial needs, the state should stick with the proven cost-effective WWAMI program.