First hurdle cleared for WSU medical school

Members of both the Senate and House higher education committees have overwhelmingly approved legislation that allows Washington State University to start its own medical school program.

And while this is a crucial first step, legislative support for the idea will be meaningless without money to propel the project. We hope that when the time comes, those lawmakers who back the concept of a WSU medical school also will push for the funding to make it happen.

So far, WSU’s proposal appears to be off to a solid start. The first task was to change a law from 1917 that gave the University of Washington sole authority to run a public medical school in the

state. The bills removing this

archaic restriction had large bipartisan support, with 17 Senate co-sponsors out of 49, and 65 House co-sponsors out of 98.

That’s an encouraging number of supporters for WSU’s plans already, and eliminating UW’s domination clears a legislative path WSU needs to start its own medical school.

UW officials have said they would not oppose WSU’s proposal, as long as it does not cut into their own program’s funding. That is gracious of them, but money, of course, will be the sticking point.

One member on the Senate Higher Education Committee, Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, had told the two universities to work out their differences, but it appears the competition between the two schools is about as amicable as it is going to get. It is going to be up to lawmakers to decide the financing of both medical school programs, and they should not shy away from their responsibility to figure that out.

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. That number is woefully inadequate and is why WSU has now decided to pursue its own medical school program.

There is a severe physician shortage nationwide, and Washington, especially in its rural areas, is in poor shape. Nationally, 21 states with a smaller population than Washington have a larger medical school capacity.

As an example, according the a WSU report, Washington and Michigan share similar demographics, yet in 2012-13, Michigan enrolled a total of 2,941 medical students through its five medical schools while UW enrolled 592. That’s 29 students per 100,000 compared to nine per 100,000.

If other states can handle more medical schools and medical students, Washington should be able to find a way as well.

The WSU report also said about 15 percent of the state’s medical school applicants get into the UW program, meaning 85 percent are turned away.

That’s not acceptable.

Both universities seem open to letting the two programs coexist as long as they get their funding. The lawmakers who already have shown support for WSU’s plans will need to also support the funding to carry them out.