Johnson asks House Finance Committee to approve funding bill for medical school

Measure would retain portion of sales tax generated in Yakima County for Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences


Rep. Norm Johnson is hoping persistence pays off as he tries to convince lawmakers in Olympia to budge on legislation that would provide a stable funding source for a new medical school in Yakima that trains doctors for rural areas. It’s Johnson’s second year working to advance House Bill 1901, but with bulldogged determination to help the school, the Yakima Republican has picked up support from both Republicans and Democrats. He made his case before the House Finance Committee Tuesday.

“The Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences is the first medical school to open in the region in more than 60 years. The university is offering a four-year medical degree program to train primary care physicians. Its emphasis is in training family practitioners who could be sent out to underserved rural areas. In fact, the federal government has determined that the Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska and even Montana, have a shortage of health care professionals – especially in rural areas,” Johnson told the committee.

“The university has been supported largely by private investment. Those dollars carry only so far. We see an opportunity to help expand the programs of the university, which would translate into the training of more health care professionals in rural areas of our state,” added Johnson. “We can do this by retaining part of the sales taxes generated within Yakima County.”

The bill would allow a health sciences and services authority (HSSA) 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 medical university.

Several people from Yakima came to the state Capitol to testify for Johnson’s bill, including Gretchen Eickmeyer, the university’s vice president.

“We are asking the Legislature to consider developing a long-range, sustainable funding mechanism. We believe creating an additional HSSA in Yakima County compliments the robust vision for furthering health care in Eastern Washington. A critical element the university brings to the table is a focus on the niche population of rural communities,” said Eickmeyer.

Although Johnson noted the measure would not increase sales taxes in Yakima County, he said the effective date of the measure is being pushed into 2011, which would give the state’s general fund more time to recover from the recession.

“The measure would allow our county to keep more of the sales taxes generated by residents locally, rather than sending it to get lost within the state general fund. I see it as a tremendous asset for citizens in Yakima who will benefit from the jobs it would create, as well as the additional doctors that could be trained and placed in rural underserved areas of our state,” said Johnson.

Last year, the 14th District lawmaker was able to get a line item in the state budget that provided $800,000 for enrollment expansion of the medical university. However, Johnson noted the governor stripped half of that amount out of her proposed supplemental budget.

“I’m working to get that funding restored as well. The medical school is too important for the families, children and senior citizens in our rural communities throughout the state who need health care. That’s why I will continue working to convince others at the state Capitol of the need for funding to support training of doctors to serve our rural areas,” concluded Johnson.

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