Alaska editorial: Kudos for legislation to help train more doctors

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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The Legislature's decision to expand the program that pays for Alaskans to go to medical school out of state, then return home to set up practice, is a helpful, long-term step toward improving health care in Alaska.

The legislation doubles to 20 per year the number of Alaska students who can attend the University of Washington medical school at reduced tuition rates. And it sets up a new incentive for graduates who return to practice in small communities. They can get more of their state student loan debt forgiven quicker for each year they provide medical services in rural Alaska and smaller Railbelt communities.

House and Senate members approved the legislation by overwhelming margins last month, followed by Gov. Sarah Palin's quick signature into law.

Of course, sending 20 Alaskans to medical school each year instead of 10 isn't going to mean all Alaskans will instantly get faster access to better medical care. And, as with all state programs, this one, too, will have to worry each year about continued legislative funding. But it's a good step forward in treating the problem of inadequate medical care for Alaskans, especially in small towns.

It's called the WWAMI program, where college students from Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho attend the UW medical school and pay the lower in-state tuition. The states pay the difference to UW, which holds a guaranteed number of slots for each state. This successful program has been around since 1975, with 60 percent of all Alaska participants still practicing medicine back in their home state, said Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, sponsor of the bill.

The cost to Alaska? Sure, there is a bill. Those 10 additional students each year will take their first year of college at UAA, attending classes to prepare for medical school. That means costly pre-med instructors and classrooms.

And then there is the cost of subsidizing the difference between their in-state tuition payments and the out-of-state actual tuition at UW. And, also add in the cost of forgiving debt for students who borrow from the state to attend med school and then work off some of their loans by practicing in rural Alaska. The annual total could be around $1.5 million to $2 million, after the expanded program has been under way for several years and 40 or 50 med school students are enrolled.

Good medicine is costly, no doubt about it. But it's also effective. And sending more Alaskans to medical school to come home and treat their neighbors is a good prescription for better health.

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