M. Spencer Green, Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Getting face time with the family doctor could soon become even harder.
A shortage of primary care physicians in some parts of the country is expected to worsen as millions of newly insured Americans gain coverage under the federal health care law next year. Doctors could face a backlog, and patients could find it difficult to get quick appointments.
Attempts to address the provider gap have taken on increased urgency ahead of the law's full implementation Jan. 1, but many of the potential solutions face a backlash from influential groups or will take years to bear fruit.
Lobbying groups representing doctors have questioned the safety of some of the proposed changes, argued they would encourage less collaboration among health professionals and suggested they could create a two-tiered health system offering unequal treatment.
Bills seeking to expand the scope of practice of dentists, dental therapists, optometrists, psychologists, nurse practitioners and others have been killed or watered down in numerous states. Other states have proposed expanding student loan reimbursements, but money for doing so is tight.
As fixes remain elusive, the shortfall of primary care physicians is expected to grow.
Nearly one in five Americans already lives in a region designated as having a shortage of primary care physicians, and the number of doctors entering the field isn't expected keep pace with demand. About a quarter million primary care doctors work in America now, and the Association of American Medical Colleges projects the shortage will reach almost 30,000 in two years and will grow to about 66,000 in little more than a decade. In some cases, nurses and physician assistants help fill in the gap.
The national shortfall can be attributed to a number of factors: The population has both aged and become more chronically ill, while doctors and clinicians have migrated to specialty fields such as dermatology or cardiology for higher pay and better hours.
The shortage is especially acute in impoverished inner cities and rural areas, where it already takes many months, years in some cases, to hire doctors, health professionals say.
"I'm thinking about putting our human resources manager on the street in one of those costumes with a 'We will hire you' sign," said Doni Miller, chief executive of the Neighborhood Health Association in Toledo, Ohio. One of her clinics has had a physician opening for two years.
In southern Illinois, the 5,500 residents of Gallatin County have no hospital, dentist or full-time doctor. Some pay $50 a year for an air ambulance service that can fly them to a hospital in emergencies. Women deliver babies at hospitals an hour away.
The lack of primary care is both a fact of life and a detriment to health, said retired teacher and community volunteer Kappy Scates of Shawneetown, whose doctor is 20 miles away in a neighboring county.
"People without insurance or a medical card put off going to the doctor," she said. "They try to take care of their kids first."
In some areas of rural Nevada, patients typically wait seven to 10 days to see a doctor.
"Many, many people are not taking new patients," said Kerry Ann Aguirre, director of business development at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital, a 45-bed facility in Elko, a town of about 18,500 that is a four-hour drive from Reno, the nearest sizable city.
Nevada is one of the states with the lowest rate per capita of active primary care physicians, along with Mississippi, Utah, Texas and Idaho, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.