Bill proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer addresses state’s shortage of primary care physicians

Source: Troy Record

A lack of doctors is putting New Yorkers at risk.

Senator Charles Schumer is launching a campaign to pass legislation to address an increasing shortage of primary care physicians in upstate New York hospitals.

Recent reports show that the majority of upstate hospitals do not have enough primary care physicians, and the problem continues to grow each year. Schumer called this “one of the biggest healthcare problems that upstate New York faces.”

Schumer said the problem has always existed in rural upstate New York, but now it’s spreading to urban and suburban areas, too.

For every 100,000 people, the standard minimal necessary number of primary care physicians is 80, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges. The entire upstate area is under that line.

In the Capital Region, it’s 62. That count is down from 70 in 2010.

At the same time as this major decline, the demand for health care has grown, as one million New Yorkers are newly insured.

Failing in comparison to the rest of the country, New York state is only meeting 45 percent of its primary care needs, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. This is one of the lowest rates in the country.

This lack of doctors could put patients at risk. A total of 63 percent of hospitals reported their primary care capabilities do not meet patients’ needs, according to the Healthcare Association of New York State. “That’s troubling for New York,” Schumer said. “We desperately need primary care physicians.”

Over the past several years, upstate New York hospitals have been experiencing a steady decline in the number of primary care physicians. “The shortage is far and away most acute with primary care physicians,” Schumer said.

To fix the problem, Schumer is proposing a revised bill to increase the number of Medicare-supported physician training residency slots nationwide by 15,000 over the next few years. The legislation, called the Resident Physician Shortage Act was introduced by Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, Nevada Senator Harry Reid, and Schumer earlier this week, gaining support from 12 senators.

The legislation places emphasis on giving slots to hospitals that serve rural areas that are experiencing physician shortages. Half of the 15,000 slots created would be reserved for primary care.

If passed, New York would get an additional 3,000 doctors each year for the following five years, bringing a 15 percent increase in the number of doctors in the state.

With the Resident Physician Shortage Act, Schumer hopes to bring more physicians to Upstate New York for their training, as many choose to stay and practice in the same area upon completing their residency.

The bill also would also prioritize the placement of physicians in hospitals that train physicians in community health centers or outpatient departments, two of the most popular places to receive healthcare upstate.

While Schumer said New York has some of the world’s best doctors, there simply aren’t enough. A major cause for the shortage is baby boomer doctors retiring, Schumer said Wednesday. “Hospitals throughout upstate have been struggling to recruit enough doctors to fill the ranks,” Schumer said, as many recent medical school graduates choose to specialize.

Money for the program would come out of the Medicare budget, using increased funding in the system. Schumer plans on using dollars currently allocated for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The amount of slots and funding that can be used are now subject to an outdated cap implemented 17 years ago, Schumer said.

Each year the Senate’s finance committee does a “doc fix,” readjusting the percentage of fees that doctors get. In the next few months, Schumer and his colleagues are suggesting a permanent doc fix, setting permanent rates for Medicare and eliminating the annual duty. Schumer called the permanent doc fix “the perfect vehicle” for the effort.

One local hospital is excited about the possible change. “As the region’s only academic health sciences center, responsible for educating and training many of the primary care physicians and specialists who serve the Capital Region, Albany Medical Center is grateful to Senator Schumer for his steadfast leadership on this issue,” said James Barba, Albany Medical Center’s president and chief executive officer.

In Saratoga, “We are able to fill our positions much more readily than some of our counterparts in more rural areas,” said Amy Raimo, vice president, community engagement, at Saratoga Hospital.

However, the hospital has noticed the physician shortage through the regional impact on its services. Leaders realized back in the early 1990s that patients from across the region were going to need more access to primary care services. To help with that, family health centers were opened to the east and west and north in Schuylerville, Galway and Wilton. “We’ve been growing our primary care access across the region,” Raimo said. “We have progressively, as we’ve gone along, been adding primary care services.”

To care for the uninsured and underinsured local population, a downtown Saratoga Community Health Center was opened on Hamilton Street, offering primary care, behavioral services and dental services.

Regarding the new legislation adding physician positions in the local region, “I think that’s wonderful and that’s what they should be doing,” Raimo said.