Sen. Lisa Murkowski began the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Feb. 21 by addressing mail she’s received over the past year from patients, especially those on Medicare, who say they have made 80 to 100 calls unsuccessfully trying to find a doctor.
These calls are a cry for help. The shortage of physicians in Alaska continues to worsen and the level of treatment that seniors receive has declined.
The medical association is backing state legislation to fund training of 20 Alaska medical students per year through the WWAMI program. Students are able to attend out-of-state colleges and receive discounted tuition in Wyoming, Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. There are currently 10 Alaskans enrolled in each University of Washington medical class. Alaska also offers one three-year residency program, training 12 new family practice doctors per year. WWAMI and Alaska’s residency program both produce about 14 doctors per year who stay in Alaska.
This number is pathetically low compared to Texas and California, where there are more than 6,000 residency slots in each state.
Alaska’s hope for physicians shouldn’t be out of state. But the problem is that the eligible medical students can’t get the training here. The WWAMI program needs to expand available slots for medical students, rather than force students to leave state to attend a university that provides more opportunities.
Debt has become a concern, however, for students who are practicing to be physicians.
Creating special residency programs – which would promise residents a job upon completion – and providing more funding for medical programs would allow students to start and finish the program and residency training without fear of debt. This would also give an incentive for more medical residents to stay in state, and it could improve the quality of medical care for seniors. Residency programs need to be made eligible for federal funding to encourage partnerships between Outside residencies and Alaska, rather than having medical students permanently leave the state, ultimately creating a shortage of eligible physicians.
And guess what? UAA is across the street from Providence Alaska Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, which already provides continuing education for physicians. What Alaska needs is to create a medical program in state by creating a partnership between Providence Hospital and UAA. The need for physicians has been made clear, so a step in the right direction would be providing more funding toward that goal.
What UAA needs is a medical program that can train more than the paltry 20 students who have to travel out of state to receive additional training.
Unfortunately, the University of Alaska Fairbanks receives the most funding of all UA campuses. During Lisa Murkowski’s first year as senator, the federal government provided almost 73 percent of the funding at UAF for research. UAF is the northernmost campus in Alaska, and it has a shrinking student enrollment. It’s time to stop bailing out the sinking ship that is UAF and allocate more funds to UAA. The state’s largest university is the ideal location for establishing a medical program in Alaska.
Murkowski says she will soon propose a bill to back expansion of doctor training programs and the expansion of community health centers.
But unless she wishes to receive more calls each year regarding the lack of eligible doctors in Alaska, she should consider ways to improve funding to establish a medical program and create a partnership between UAA and Providence Hospital.
Supplying more opportunities locally by creating UAA’s own medical program will fulfill the demand for the increasing need of physicians in Alaska.