A budget proposal by Alaska lawmakers would remove that state's support from WWAMI for financial reasons, although sponsors would like Alaska students to be able to participate at their own expense.
Several Alaska lawmakers have proposed phasing out that state’s funding and participation in a five-state medical school program run by the University of Washington.
The budget amendment, proposed by three representatives in Alaska’s legislature, would gradually wind down support for the 20 students Alaska sends annually through the UW-run program, which Alaska participates in because it has no medical school of its own. Under the proposal, Alaska’s participation would end by 2020.
It’s not that Alaska lawmakers are unhappy with the program, said Alaska Rep. Lynn Gattis, a Republican from Wasilla and one of the amendment’s three sponsors. It’s all about money: Alaska legislators are trying to sharply cut the state’s budget because of the plunging price of oil, which accounts for 90 percent of the state’s revenue. And participating in WWAMI — an acronym that stands for the five states that participate — costs Alaska about $3 million a year.
The proposal still has many steps to go before it could become law, and it’s controversial, Gattis acknowledged. But she said that lawmakers are “making huge drastic cuts everywhere. We’re eliminating programs that are not part of our constitutional mandate.”
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Meanwhile, supporters of the program are now lobbying the Alaska Senate to keep WWAMI funding in the budget. “There’s a lot of work being done by advocates in Alaska to make sure the program stays whole,” said Suzanne Allen, vice dean for academic, rural and regional affairs for the UW School of Medicine.
The proposal comes at a time when the UW and Washington State University are at odds over the future of medical school education here. WSU participated for many years in WWAMI, which also trains doctors in Spokane, but last year pulled out and began laying the groundwork for its own Spokane medical school. Both the Senate and the House in Washington’s legislature have okayed bills approving a WSU-run medical school, but no funding has yet been earmarked.
Through WWAMI, the states of Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana provide students with some early medical training at universities in their own states, and later at the UW’s School of Medicine. Those states subsidize most of the cost for their students. Washington — the most populous of the states and the only one with its own medical school — subsidizes medical school training for 120 of its own students.
The four smaller states participate because they believe local students are more likely to return home to work as doctors, and the hope is that they’ll work in rural areas, where medical care is most lacking.
But Gattis said Alaska hasn’t had trouble attracting doctors to work in rural areas because they’re so well-paid. “We charge a heck of a lot more than you do,” she said of medical costs in Alaska, “and we pay a lot more” to doctors.
And while Gattis wants to end Alaska’s funding for the program for budget reasons, she’s hoping Alaska students can still participate if they pay their own way.
Allen said it costs about $70,000 a year to educate a doctor. Under WWAMI, the participating states subsidize about $40,000 of the annual cost, and the student pays the rest.
And if Alaska’s economy turns around, the state could return to subsidizing its students, Gattis said.
Meanwhile, the Idaho Legislature has proposed increasing its share of WWAMI students from 30 to 35, Allen said.