HELENA - Six students apply for each slot available in the regional medical school program known as WWAMI for the initials of the participating states.
Of those applicants from Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, 21 percent applied to the program at least twice and some have applied nine times, said Tasneen Khaleel, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Montana State University-Billings.
Khaleel's daughter couldn't gain entrance into WWAMI and now attends medical school in Vermont. Khaleel and many others spoke before the Senate Finance and Claims Committee on Thursday in support of a proposed medical school at the MSU-Billings campus. "The WWAMI program is great, but it's not sufficient to serve the growing medical need in the state of Montana," Khaleel said.
Currently, 20 Montana medical students attend their first year of medical school at Montana State University in Bozeman, then spend the next three years at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The state spends about $3 million a year through the WWAMI program helping 60 Montana students with out-of-state tuition costs.
About 42 percent of Montana's WWAMI graduates come back to practice in their home state.
Senate Bill 273, sponsored by Sen. Corey Stapleton, R-Billings, would allow the state to spend $50,000 to study the feasibility of creating a school of rural medicine on the MSU-Billings campus.
Supporters said the state needs more doctors, and said a rural medical school could fill that need. Dr. Nick Wolter, president and chief executive officer of Deaconess Billings Clinic, said the medical school would attract research and grant money, health care and biotechnology businesses as well as physicians.
"I don't think this is about competing with WWAMI," Wolter said, adding that a medical school could complement the existing program.
Opponents questioned the potential cost. Helena physician Bill Gallea said the state currently spends $41,000 a year educating each of Montana's medical students. And he said no other state in the country, including those with medical schools, can do it for less.
"It seems like we have a tremendous bargain," Gallea said.
Jay Erickson, a Whitefish physician and WWAMI's clinical coordinator for Montana, said a Billings medical school just isn't a wise use of state money.
However, supporters say a Montana medical school could help alleviate the lack of physicians across Montana. Todd Hansen, administrator for the Montana Family Practice Residency, said Montana offers only five or six resident slots to medical graduates each year. He pointed out that 37 of the state's 56 counties are medically underserved, and 43 counties have a shortage of primary care physicians. He said he struggles "mightily" to place doctors in Montana's rural areas.
"We are all doing our very best, but it's still not enough, and the shortages continue," Hansen said.
Stapleton estimates that a rural medical school could run on $5 million of state money each year. The proposed school would rely heavily on private endowments and donations as well as federal funding. SB273 would create a 13-member study commission to examine the proposal during the interim between this legislative session and the 2007 session.
"The governor finds this to be an intriguing and exciting idea," said Evan Barrett, the governor's chief business officer.
"If it will work out, it will be a tremendous benefit for Montana."