OLYMPIA — A bill authorizing Washington State University to open its own medical school in Spokane has hit a snag following a Seattle legislator’s demand that the school promise to not limit its teaching based on the beliefs of religious-affiliated hospitals.
The WSU proposal (House Bill 1559) has broad bipartisan support, with 65 co-sponsors. It would end a restriction dating back to 1916 that allowed the University of Washington to operate the state’s only medical school.
The bill was scheduled to be voted out of the House Higher Education Committee on Friday, but the vote was delayed after Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, pushed an amendment demanding WSU give upfront assurances that its medical school would not limit teaching on reproductive health or end-of-life care due to partnerships with religious hospitals.
WSU supporters say they have no intention of restricting medical education, but that Pollet’s amendment has no place in the authorization bill.
“It’s way out on the front end of the process,” said Ken Roberts, acting dean of the WSU College of Medical Sciences. He said Pollet is the only legislator he’s heard raise such a concern.
“This is absolutely not the appropriate vehicle,” said Rep. Marcus Ricelli, D-Spokane, the prime sponsor of the bill. Ricelli said he’s confident the proposal will pass out of the committee next week, without Pollet’s amendment.
Pollet argued that now is absolutely the time to demand such public assurances in one form or another, but said WSU has declined to offer them. “You don’t authorize a medical school without an assurance that it will train students in all relevant medical practices, including reproductive health for woman and end-of-life care,” he said.
Pollet’s amendment reflects a larger concern by some over a recent surge in affiliations between Catholic health-care systems and secular hospitals. Critics have worried about access to abortion and other medical services barred by religious doctrine.
The UW has long trained its own medical students in Spokane, through its WWAMI program, which has been operated as a partnership with WSU. That program trains students at times in religiously affiliated hospitals, such as Sacred Heart Medical Center. But Pollet said the UW has worked on policies to ensure no gaps in its medical education occur due to those affiliations. He said he worries about the WSU medical school, which would place students entirely in local hospitals for two years.
The UW and WSU have clashed over the medical-school proposal, with the UW arguing a more cost-effective approach would be for lawmakers to expand its existing Spokane program, which trains 40 students a year. But more recently, UW lobbyists have said they don’t oppose the WSU bill so long as the Legislature provides funding to keep the UW’s Spokane program on track.
Even apart from his religious-hospital amendment, Pollet, who also works as a UW instructor, is no fan of the WSU proposal. He also has proposed an amendment to halt the medical school while a broader study is conducted on the best ways to address the shortage of health-care providers in the state.