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Facing doctor shortage, lawmakers propose changes

Education Committee's WWAMI bill

POCATELLO, Idaho - A new bill proposal will ask Idahoans who use state funding under the Professional Studies Program to come back and practice in Idaho or pay back a portion of the loan over a period of time.

Representative Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, said with the shortage of doctors in the state, these changes are coming to try and patch-up that looming problem.

"If we are going to pick specific students to use taxpayer assistance to further their education, then there should be some type of return on that investment," Packer said.

There are five main programs under the Professional Studies Program, with WWAMI being the largest. While other programs target veterinary medicine, dental schools, etc., WWAMI specifically sets aside seats for students in Idaho, Washington Wyoming, Alaska and Montana who are looking to go to medical school, and will help them pay for it. Currently, Idaho gets about 20 seats.

The problem is that since the state doesn't have a medical school, they're forced to leave the state in order to study medicine, and many of them aren't returning to Idaho.

With Idaho now ranking lowest in the nation for doctors per capita (many of the state's physicians are starting to retire), Packer believes something needs to be done, and this is the first step.

"We shouldn't be using taxpayer dollars to pay for individual students to receive further education when those students have no desire to come back to Idaho to practice," Packer added.

Packer said there's $9.1 million spent on the Program in total, whereas almost four million dollars is spent on the WWAMI program. 

Packer said, this doesn't add up and wants to know where the rest of the money is going, saying there's a huge difference between what they are spending on the seats in these programs and what they are actually funding for the seats in local colleges and universities in similar programs (such as pharmacy, nursing, etc.).

The new proposals would ask these students to pay back what would have been their portion of the loan (such as the out-of-state tuition cost), so they wouldn't be burdened by the entire loan amount. 

At the same time, if they choose to not pay back the loan, they will be required to work in a rural Idaho community for at least three years, and five years in urban areas.

Packer said the program was originally set-up to act as a loan agreement between the recipient and the state, but it hasn't been upheld by the program board.

With WWAMI and the State Board of Education against these changes, Packer said the reasons why they are against it are unclear, but believes they don't want to have to take on the new responsibility of accountability.

"Unfortunately the State Board of Education has not been following that statute and when I asked them why, they said that they didn't do it as a mandate, but more as an option," Packer said.

Overall, Packer said she hopes this will get more local doctors to come back to Idaho and clear the shortage hurdles the state is facing.

Click here for more on WWAMI.

Follow Emily and Kaitlin on Twitter: @EmValla @KaitlinLoukides

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