A state Senate panel on Monday heard a rebuttal to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan to shut down Alaska’s lone medical school program, an effort to save slightly more than $3 million.

The program is run through the University of Washington School of Medicine and is best known by its acronym WWAMI for the five participating states: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

Alaska was the first state to enter into the collaboration in 1971; it now educates 80 students annually, said Dr. Suzanne Allen, a vice dean for the UW School of Medicine. Students can complete their entire program in Alaska except for two clinical rotations at the University of Washington.

Allen addressed the Senate Finance Committee in a one-hour hearing, stressing how Alaska needs 60 new physicians annually, and WWAMI is a good start toward filling that void.

“We know that there is a shortage of physicians across the state, across the country,” she said in an interview after the hearing. “Alaska is no different with really a need for primary care physicians.  So when we just look at the benefits of the WWAMI program, we focus on training people to work in primary care in rural areas.”

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, is the lone physician in the Legislature and he also sits on the Senate Finance Committee. Olson says he worries about rural communities being hit first if the program is shut down. Olson also said the WWAMI program creates more opportunity for Alaska students.

“What’s going to happen is the people in rural Alaska, the place that I represent, are going to be suffering,” Olson said after the hearing. “They are going to pull those people that are from there and move them into the urban areas if we don’t try and adequately get enough physicians on the market that can practice health care in Alaska.”

When Dunleavy rolled out his budget proposal on Feb. 13, WWAMI was listed among dozens of highlighted reductions.

His budget team wrote, the program, “has not proven effective at meeting the demand for new physicians, despite a significant state investment over the years. Diminishing returns of this program are not sustainable in the current fiscal environment.”

Allen told the committee because Alaska does not have its own medical school, the partnership with UW is more cost effective than building one and it provides 20 new students a year to enroll into a top 10 medical school. She also reminded the committee that the health care industry is growing in Alaska and the program provides jobs for faculty and staff, plus the new physicians.

She said the economic impact for one new primary care physician is an estimated $1 million annually because of hires associated with that new doctor.

The committee did not take any action and is still reviewing Dunleavy’s budget.

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