The Legislature has passed a bill that opens the door for a new medical school to be established by Washington State University, but the bill doesn’t appropriate any state funding for the school.
OLYMPIA — A nearly century-old restriction giving the University of Washington the exclusive right to operate a public medical school in the state of Washington was removed by the Legislature on Wednesday, opening the door for Washington State University to open its own medical school in Spokane.
Senators approved House Bill 1559 on a 47-1 vote, and the measure now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature. The Senate passed an identical version earlier this month but took its final vote on the House version of the bill.
Sen. Barbara Bailey, a Republican from Oak Harbor who is chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said the bill was an important step to increase the number of medical students in the state. She noted that Washington needs more medical providers and that the measure was “a great start in answering that shortage.”
By adding WSU as a school that is authorized to establish and operate a school of medicine, the bill eliminates a restriction dating from 1917 that gives the University of Washington the exclusive right to do so. The UW medical school admits only 120 Washington medical students each year, though it also currently trains additional medical students in Spokane through a multistate program it runs.
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The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Marcus Riccelli, of Spokane, said that the bill’s passage will allow more local students to stay in state to continue their education.
“A new generation of doctors will engage in cutting-edge community-based training to ensure Washington patients get the care they deserve,” he said in a statement in which he thanked Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who was the Senate sponsor of the measure.
The bill doesn’t appropriate any state money to help establish a new WSU medical school, but lawmakers are in the process of crafting budget proposals for the next two-year state budget.
WSU is estimating it would cost $2.5 million to pursue accreditation for the medical school; the money would, in part, be used to hire a dean, associate dean and support staff. The first class of 40 students would enter in fall 2017. If a school is ultimately established, WSU estimates it would need $60,000 in state funds per student each year.
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Democrat from Seattle, was the lone no vote.
He said he had concerns about the amount of money that the school would cost the state, and suggested there were less expensive ways to address physician-shortage issues, such as expanding the current multistate program that UW runs, or a loan repayment program.
“We have better ways of spending that money that would more quickly deliver more doctors to the areas that actually need them,” Pedersen said after the vote.
UW representatives at first lobbied vigorously against the WSU proposal, arguing that expanding its own Spokane program could increase the number of doctors much more quickly. Both schools paid for consultant reports that came to contradictory conclusions about the cost and the need for a second medical school. UW officials also argued that the state could not support two medical schools because there are limits on the numbers of clinical training and residency sites available.
But in the last few weeks, support for the WSU proposal started to snowball among legislators, said Chris Mulick, WSU director of state relations. “We knew we were picking up support — people really understanding and feeling the need in their own community,” he said.
Baumgartner said legislators “did not want this issue to become the Apple Cup of medical education,” alluding to the annual football competition between the state’s two research universities. In the end, UW officials seemed resigned to the measure, and legislators from both sides of the state came together to pass the bill.
After the vote, WSU President Elson Floyd met with lawmakers in the office of Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, where he thanked them “for your confidence and your trust in Washington State University.”
“There is no doubt that today is a historic event,” he said. “We will make a difference in the delivery, the quality, the affordability and access for health care for Washingtonians.”