Budget proposal seeks to cut WWAMI program in Alaska

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A new budget proposal by the state’s lawmakers is seeking to cut funding to the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) Regional Medical Education Program and phase out the program completely by 2020. The renowned medical education program costs the state about $3 million a year.

Since 1971 the state of Alaska has been partnered with the University of Washington School of Medicine, offering Alaska students in-state tuition at UW and an opportunity to participate in clerkships in the Pacific Northwest region. WWAMI students at UAA spend 18 months studying at UAA, which is equivalent to their first and second year of medical school.

More than 175 Alaskan physicians teach WWAMI students, either in class during their three semesters at UAA, or at one of the 42 active clerkships across the state. UAA WWAMI School of Medical Education Director Jane Shelby is satisfied with the growth WWAMI has made.

“The program here at UAA went from 10 to 20 students in 2008. We are currently accepting 20 students. We have enough applicants where I would feel comfortable bringing in 25 or even 30 students,” Shelby said.

Despite the program’s longevity in the state, lawmakers are hoping to cut the program and save the state money in times of plunging oil prices and economic downturn. Representative Lynn Gattis, one of the lawmakers behind the budget reform, believes the need for good medical care here in Alaska is a high priority and can be funded by the hospitals rather than the state.

“I contacted hospitals and asked where they got their folks from, and they get them from all over. Given a choice, they prefer WWAMI because they are right across the street and they won’t have to pay relocation fees. The state pays that 50 grand — they don’t have to. But they are a private business and they are going to do what the market bears,” Gattis said.

Shelby believes the consequences would be detrimental if the state chooses to cut funds for WWAMI.

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“Alaskan students will not get an opportunity to go to UW medical school if WWAMI is cut. This is the reality Alaskan students will have to face if the cuts go through. UW medical school gets about 8,000 applications a year; 6,900 of those applications are out of state out students. Of the 6,900 applications, 10 out of state students are selected. Whereas with WWAMI Alaskan students have a guarantee of 20 seats and get to pay in state tuition, which is about 32,000 a year in state,” Shelby said.

She also said consequences in the state of Alaska will come at a great cost if the program is cut.

“Right now we have a shortage of primary care physicians. (A) majority of WWAMI students (62 percent of them) graduate in primary care. With our large aging population we will need these primary care physicians,” Shelby said.

Gattis noted the importance of primary care physicians and the state’s need for medical care, and she emphasized how the hospitals should pay for the doctors, saving the state money.

“We are struggling for primary care physicians. We have hospitals around the state that are hiring from the Lower 48, and they pay relocation packages to these people,” Gattis said.

In times of economic struggle, Gattis believes this cut will save the state money while affording the physicians the state needs.

The average return rate of Alaska students graduating from WWAMI is about 47 percent — this increases to nearly 84 percent when the figure includes non-Alaskan graduates participating in the state.

The state proposal is still in its infancy and the funding will be continued for the next year.