Legislature should help WSU’s medical school

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The founding of Washington State University’s medical school in Spokane was a big step toward improving health care throughout the state. Now, the Legislature should provide an extra boost by allowing for larger enrollment at the school.

School officials have requested an extra $3.6 million for the 2019-21 biennium to increase the size of incoming classes from 60 students to 80 students. The money, however, is not included in a two-year operating budget that has passed the House of Representatives, nor is it included in the Senate’s proposed budget.

Amid a budget that likely will be more than $25 billion a year, the cost of increasing class sizes at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine is relatively affordable — less than 50 cents per Washington resident. And that cost would be dwarfed by the benefits it would provide.

Those benefits extend all the way to Vancouver. WSU’s med school welcomed 60 students for each of its first two years of enrollment. Those students will spend their third and fourth years in Vancouver, Everett, Spokane and the Tri-Cities — where WSU has outlying campuses. There, they will receive hands-on training in local clinics and medical offices, learning, providing care, and perhaps setting down roots in those communities.

Most important, however, is the promise the Floyd College of Medicine — posthumously named for the WSU president who tirelessly championed the establishment of the school — holds for Washington’s rural areas.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, our state ranks below average in physicians per capita. That shortage is particularly evident in rural counties and is expected to become more pronounced in coming years; as of 2016, according to a study from the University of Washington, the counties of Skamania, Columbia, Ferry and Garfield had no physicians under the age of 55.

WSU’s med school was designed to help address those shortages, but its founding has been a struggle from the start. Officials at the University of Washington, where the medical school trains nearly 300 students a year to serve Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, initially hoped to establish a joint medical school with WSU in Eastern Washington. After Washington State created its own facility, UW joined forces with Gonzaga University for a medical program in Spokane.

The need for additional doctors is evident, with experts long warning of a critical shortage of care throughout the state. The availability of eager students also is evident; officials at the Floyd College of Medicine report receiving 1,500 applicants for the incoming class of 60 or 80 students.

Procuring funding for the additional students is not the top priority for WSU officials. That is because the Legislature first must allot the necessary $10.8 million to allow current students to complete their training. But WSU’s initial plan identified 80 students a year as the optimum number, and administrators deserve an opportunity to follow through with their outline.

“They’re doing exactly what they said they would do,” Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, told The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review. “Eighty is the original break-even, cost-effective level.”

Washington State’s medical school is off to a strong start in serving students from throughout the state and in promising to address a shortage of doctors. Legislators should help the school achieve the vision it originally laid out.