Committee hears testimony in favor of Johnson’s bill to expand health sciences university in Yakima

Measure would allow creation of health sciences and services authority


A bill prime-sponsored by Rep. Norm Johnson would have widespread health care and economic benefits for Yakima County and the state if it was approved, the House Higher Education Committee was told today.

House Bill 1901 would allow a health sciences and services authority to be established in Yakima County. Johnson says once the authority is established, Yakima County could choose to retain two-tenths of 1 percent of the sales tax generated in the county for expansion of the new Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, which is training students to become primary care physicians.

Karen Hyatt, chair of the university’s board of trustees, says the school, which recently opened its doors and is training its first set of 75 doctors, has room to grow, but not the funding.

“We brought a large project to fruition in a very short amount of time. We did it all with private funding. While we are very proud of that, we find ourselves at a place where it is time to look to other sources to continue the growth of the university. We feel we have something important to bring to the medical well-being of the five western states,” said Hyatt.

The university’s president, Dr. Stan Flemming, said demand is already outpacing available slots for enrollment at the health sciences school.

“We had 1,976 qualified applicants last year for the 75 authorized seats. This year, that number now exceeds 2,200,” said Fleming.

Yakima Regional Medical Center Board President Maureen Adkison told the committee a shortage of physicians exists nationwide while the need for more doctors is increasing.

“The bad news is that it will get worse because physicians will be retiring. If we don’t have adequate, well-trained people coming out of schools, it will simply get worse,” said Atkison. “The passage of this bill will go a very long way to add new physicians and well-trained physicians to this entire state.”

Johnson said the measure would not only allow for the university’s expansion, but would be a great economic boost to the Yakima Valley.

“It would provide for the creation of jobs, not only in the Yakima area, but throughout the state as newly trained health care professionals set up their businesses,” said Johnson, R-Yakima. “We can do this without raising taxes, and instead, retain part of the sales taxes generated within Yakima County that would otherwise be sent to Olympia.”

Dave McFadden, president of the Yakima County Economic Development Association, echoed Johnson’s comments, saying that the measure would help to address the critical shortage of doctors, especially in rural areas, and would also stimulate the local economy.

“The Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences is one of the most exciting stories unfolding in our valley right now. We truly believe the university can address state health care issues. We also believe as the university grows, it will have a positive impact on Yakima County, and open new doors of opportunity, both for our region and also for Washington state,” said McFadden.  “One of the best investments Washington state can make to stimulate our economy is in higher education and workforce training. Establishing an additional HSSA is an efficient tool that can help address some of the state’s health care issues and support economic revitalization.”

Yakima County Commissioner Kevin Bouchey said the local region stands to benefit from additional doctors being trained to address rural health care needs.

“Our rural area is largely underserved with medical care. The establishment of this authority would help promote health care for these underserved individuals in Yakima County and the state of Washington,” noted Bouchey.

Flemming noted that in the first year of its operation, the university accounted for nearly 7.4 percent of the new non-agricultural employment, and contributed nearly $42 million to the Yakima Valley’s economy during construction of the first building on the 42 1/2 acre site. He said the bill could generate up to $500,000 annually, which would be used to leverage capital for additional jobs in the areas of research, disease management, and increased access to health care.

“This bill is not about what the state may lose in potential revenue for the general fund. It’s about what the state may gain by allowing some revenue to be reinvested back into Yakima County. This bill serves as a tool, albeit in a small way, but yet in a very effective way, to address the economic and health challenges facing the Yakima Valley,” said Flemming. “When people are healthy, communities thrive. This is about investing in a stimulus package that will have both a present and a future impact on our state.”

“If this bill passes,” added Johnson, “we all win – patients, doctors, health care professionals, the state of Washington, and the educators at our new medical university in Yakima.”

The committee is expected to take action on the measure soon.

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Washington State House Republican Communications