Our Voice: Legislators must provide for both medical schools

Washington State University’s plans to start its own medical school in Spokane appear to be grounded with $2.5 million of accreditation money in both the House and Senate budgets.

But now that the Legislature is in its extended session and budget compromises will be made, there are other financial details to work out to ensure more future doctors have access to the education they need in this state.

The sticking point now is how to allocate costs associated with the breakup between WSU and the University of Washington’s regional medical education program. From the beginning, WSU’s proposal was not about putting one university ahead of another. It was about addressing a doctor shortage in this state that a combined effort by both universities could alleviate.

There is some concern by the incoming class of UW’s medical school students in Spokane that the Senate budget reduces their particular program and threatens its future. Meanwhile, WSU officials likely favor the Senate proposal because it’s a better deal for them.

In the past, WSU received $9.4 million a biennium from the state to help provide medical education through the regional WWAMI partnership, which is the regional UW medical school program that attracts students from Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

With WSU leaving the group, UW contends it is entitled to that money. WSU, however, believes UW should receive the per student rate to educate medical students, which is much less.

The House budget gives WSU $8 million for accreditation, but takes away the $9.4 million medical education money. The Senate version allows WSU to keep the current appropriation and gives the additional $2.5 million.

Somehow legislators need to find a way to give each medical school program what it needs to thrive.

At the beginning of the year it looked like WSU and UW might be headed for a legislative fight over their separate medical school plans. But then negotiations and graciousness prevailed and officials from the two schools amicably agreed not to oppose each other’s proposals. It was a relief it worked out that way.

The state has a severe doctor shortage and a high number of students who leave the region to study medicine because there is not enough slots in the UW program.

That’s why WSU decided to break away from UW and start its own medical school, believing there is need enough for both universities to offer medical education programs. UW now has expansion plans of its own and wants to continue its presence in Eastern Washington.

WSU plans to graduate its first class of medical students in the spring of 2021. In the meantime, UW must be allowed to continue its program with financial certainty. Lawmakers should make sure both medical school programs get the money they need to meet their goals.