Washington State University President Elson Floyd built bipartisan support and won approval from lawmakers to begin creating a new medical school.
When Washington State University President Elson Floyd flew to Olympia this year with a proposal to create a new state-supported medical school in Spokane, there was no guarantee he could pull it off.
The University of Washington had its own ambitious plan, touting its status as the top-ranked primary medical school in the nation as it lobbied to expand a program it runs in Spokane, and saying that would be the least expensive and fastest way to increase the number of physicians in the state.
But legislators say Floyd made a compelling case that the state needed more than one approach to training doctors, and that WSU could help make that happen.
In the end, the legislation that will allow WSU to go forward passed by an overwhelming margin — winning 65 sponsors in the House, and passing nearly unanimously in the Senate. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law last week.
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The law amends a nearly 100-year-old provision that allowed only the UW to operate a medical school, giving WSU the go-ahead to begin working on accreditation.
There are still many hurdles ahead. Although both the House and Senate have budgeted money to get the accreditation process started, it will take millions more to create the school. Even assuming there are no glitches, the first graduates won’t begin working as doctors for nearly a decade.
Still, the victory shines the spotlight on WSU’s Floyd, who spent hours testifying before committees, meeting one on one with legislators and building WSU’s case for why a second medical school made sense, even while UW lobbyists were saying it didn’t.
“He is the most recognizable higher-education president in Olympia today,” said Gene Sharrat, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, a state policy board and successor to the old Higher Education Coordinating Board that Floyd once ran in the early 1990s.
Of the four men and one woman who now serve as presidents of Washington’s public universities, Floyd has been on the job the longest, serving as the leader of WSU since 2007. (Evergreen State College President Les Purce has been president of that school for 15 years, but Evergreen is not a university. Purce is retiring this spring.)
State Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, described Floyd as a very effective ambassador.
“He has played enough different roles in higher ed in Washington state that he tends to know who to talk to,” said Hansen, who heads the House’s higher-education committee.
The UW, in contrast, has had two presidents and two interim presidents during the time Floyd has headed WSU. Some say that turnover may have weakened the UW’s position in Olympia.
Before the session started — and even as it got under way — the medical-school campaign looked like it might shape up as a turf war between Huskies and Cougars.
After WSU released a report in September showing it had the capacity to create its own medical school, the UW signaled its disappointment, urging WSU to put aside “individual institutional ambitions” and focus on what’s best for the state.
In October, the UW released a contradictory study saying the state didn’t have enough capacity for two medical schools, stressing the value of the five-state cooperative that it runs, known as WWAMI (which stand for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho). The UW continues to seek an $8 million bump in funding to double the size of the Spokane part of that program.
In December, a panel headed by former Gov. Dan Evans said the fastest way to increase the number of doctors would be for the UW to expand WWAMI.
Then, in February, UW President Michael Young unexpectedly announced he was leaving to take a job as head of Texas A&M University. Young was gone within a month, and with the WSU medical-school bill picking up sponsors, UW officials began downplaying their opposition to WSU’s proposal although still stressing the need to expand WWAMI in Spokane.
Many legislators seem willing to fund both.
“I came to believe, with the size of our state — and we’re a growing state — there is ample opportunity to expand our medical-school offerings,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who said WSU made a good case.
Money remains a problem. As of Friday, the House budget funded both the WSU medical school and the UW’s WWAMI expansion, but the proposed Senate budget would give each school $2.5 million — not enough, the UW says, to keep WWAMI going in Spokane, let alone expand it.
Weeks of negotiations on all aspects of the state budget lie ahead.
Hansen, for example, said that while he supports WSU’s bid to set up its own medical school, he believes there are other things that would do more to ease the rural doctor shortage — such as helping young doctors in rural areas pay back their loans, expanding medical residencies in rural areas and growing the UW’s medical school.
Hansen believes money to support WSU’s accreditation bid is less important than those three approaches. If funding becomes a problem, he said, WSU now at least has the authority to begin working on accreditation and could always raise the money privately to pay for that.
On the Senate side, WSU had to convince Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, who heads that chamber’s higher-education committee. At first, Bailey was skeptical. Eventually, she was convinced that the investment was worth it.
“I think the time is right, and we need to go forward,” she said.
Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, supported the WSU medical school from the outset but voted against the bill in committee — only because there was no assurance that the UW’s Spokane program would not lose funding.
Despite his “no” vote, Frockt got a note from WSU’s team the next day that said, in effect: We want to work with you.
“I think the way his (Floyd’s) team went about their strategy was a reflection of his steadiness and eye on the goal,” Frockt said.
Over time, Floyd and his team built a bipartisan coalition of support to move the bill through the Legislature, said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, and WSU stressed the need for more medical-school slots — particularly in Spokane, a city that has long wanted its own medical school.
Baumgartner believes the UW wouldn’t have pushed to expand WWAMI in Spokane if WSU hadn’t made its own medical-school move.
“Anyone who’s interested, as well, in the UW expanding their medical school ought to write Elson Floyd a thank-you note,” Baumgartner said.
Floyd says he believes WSU’s focus on building a community-based medical school, using hospitals across the state for training rather than building a separate teaching hospital, resonated with legislators.
“I’m very passionate about this,” he said. “This is the right thing for the state of Washington, to have health- care choices.”
WSU next must win provisional accreditation from the Liaison Committee for Medical Education, the national accrediting body for medical schools.
If all goes as planned, WSU would begin teaching its first class of 40 students in fall 2017, and those students would finish medical school four years later, by spring 2021. Before they entered practice, they’d need to do residencies for a minimum of three more years.
The first class of WSU doctors would begin practicing medicine by July 2024.