Bill tweaking medical school program dies in House committee

Measure would have required medical students to practice in Idaho or repay the state.

(Idaho Falls) Post RegisterFebruary 20, 2014 

As he nears the end of his final year in medical school, Kurt Olaveson is close to achieving his goal of becoming a physician.

So, when Olaveson testified against a measure before the House Education Committee on Wednesday, it was with the idea of making sure his fellow Idaho students would have the choices needed to achieve goals like his.

The measure, sponsored by Kelly Packer, R-McCammon, died in committee. It would have required medical students such as Olaveson to stay in Idaho after they completed their educaiton if they had participated in programs such as the WWAMI Regional Medical Education Program or repay to the state a portion of their educational costs.

Under Packer’s bill, the State Board of Education would required contracts with each medical student stipulating that money paid by the state to help finance their educations would be repaid, unless the student practiced in Idaho immediately after completing their educations. Those students would have been required to practice in Idaho for at least three years.

Olaveson, a Rigby native, said being selected for one of Idaho’s seats in the WWAMI program helped make his dream a reality.

The program allows students from Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, states that do not have their own medical schools, to attend medical school at the University of Washington with in-state tuition. Idaho reserves 25 seats in the program.

“This has given a rural Idaho farm kid an opportunity to go to medical school,” Olaveson said.

But it didn’t come cheap. He testified he’s racked up $160,000 in student debt, an amount many in the program are facing.

Olaveson has options to reduce his debt through loan-forgiveness programs available through certain hospitals, as well as the Rural Physicians Incentive Program and the National Health Service Core Program.

That would not have been the case, Olaveson said, had Packer’s bill been approved.

But Packer said her legislation would have encouraged participation in Idaho residency programs while ensuring state taxpayers were funding future physicians who would practice in Idaho. Wyoming and Alaska have similar legislative mandates for students who participate in their programs.

“This is not crippling other programs in Wyoming and Alaska,” Packer said. “I truly do not believe those programs will be (negatively affected.) I believe it will enhance their financial strength.”

But students and stakeholders disagreed.

Idaho state Board of Education spokeswoman Marilyn Whitney said the board was not consulted before the legislation was introduced and does not have the staff to support the the bill’s contract provision.

Olaveson said requiring one group of students — future doctors — to repay their public education costs if they don’t stay in state for a job was unfair. The state doesn’t require other professions, including lawyers, engineers and other medical professionals, to do the same.

Dr. Mary Barinaga, an assistant dean with the University of Washington, said the measure would show up on a student’s credit report as an active loan repayment program, which would impede a student’s ability to get student loan repayment help from other sources. That isn’t the way to entice physicians to make a home in Idaho, she said.

“We train people in the state,” she said, “and we need to use carrots — not sticks … this is not a scholarship program, and they are not coming out debt free.”

Benjamin Jones, a Shelley native attending medical school at the University of Utah through a state-supported program similar to WWAMI, echoed Olaveson’s concerns.

If he was under the burden of a contract as proposed in Packer’s bill, Jones said he wouldn’t have been able to explore other options to become a better physician.

“We should not be limited (educationally) to the size of the loans we can reasonably afford,” he said.

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