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WASHINGTON – Western New York’s supply of primary care physicians plummeted by nearly a quarter between 2010 and 2013, Sen. Charles E. Schumer announced Wednesday, providing the starkest evidence yet of a family doctor shortage plaguing upstate New York and likely to get worse in the future.

The state’s four westernmost counties had 74 primary care physicians per 100,000 people in 2010. But by last year, that figure was down to 57 to 100,000 – a 23 percent drop.

“This is one of the biggest health care problems that upstate New York faces,” said Schumer, D-N.Y.

Schumer, who culled the statistics from the Center for Health Workforce Studies in Albany, announced the numbers while proposing a partial solution: an increase in federally funded training slots for primary care physicians.

Health industry experts lauded Schumer’s proposal while stressing that they are facing a complex problem stemming from the retirement of baby-boomer doctors, the reluctance of young doctors to go into less lucrative family practices, and a need for care from people who have health coverage for the first time under Obamacare.

“The problem is serious, and it’s been serious for a while,” said Dr. Nancy H. Nielsen, a senior associate dean at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a former president of the American Medical Association.

Nielsen termed Schumer’s numbers “scary.” Not only do they show a precipitous drop in the number of doctors in just three years; they also show that every region in upstate New York is now falling short of an adequate number of primary care physicians, which is generally considered to be 80 doctors per 100,000 residents.

One big reason for the big drop in general practitioners is simple demographics.

“The baby boom generation of doctors is retiring, and hospitals are struggling to recruit doctors to fill the ranks,” Schumer said.

Nielsen said it’s difficult to recruit young physicians to come to Buffalo unless they have a family connection there already.

On top of that, health professionals said it is difficult to lure young would-be physicians into general medicine when the specialty medical practices are so much more lucrative.

According to a survey by Medscape, which is part of WebMD, the average family doctor earned $176,000 last year – while the average ophthalmologist took home $291,000 and the average cardiologist was paid $351,000.

Given that many new doctors graduate with upwards of $200,000 in student debt, “that may be forcing people to look at other things” rather than general medicine, said Dr. Thomas J. Madejski, a general practitioner from Medina who serves as assistant treasurer of the Medical Society of the State of New York.

It is all adding up to a family doctor shortage throughout Western New York.

According to Schumer’s calculations, in Erie County, the number of general practitioners per 100,000 residents fell from 85 in 2010 to 69 last year.

In Niagara County, the number fell from 65 to 49. In Chautauqua County, it fell from 81 to 62. And in Cattaraugus County, it fell from 68 to 49.

The doctor shortage is particularly acute in rural areas, Madejski noted. “I’ve lived with this problem for a while,” he said. “I practice in a rural area, and it’s always been difficult to recruit doctors to come here. But now it’s next to impossible.”

What’s more, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

More than a million people in New York are getting health coverage they didn’t have before Obamacare, and given the health law’s emphasis on preventive medicine, they are going to need doctors.

More general practitioners will be required to meet the growing need, Schumer said.

He has introduced similar legislation before, but he said it is more likely to pass this year because he finally has an appropriate and potentially popular legislative vehicle to attach it to: a bill that would permanently readjust Medicare reimbursement rates for physicians.

Schumer’s bill has the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Rep. Joe Crowley, D-Queens, is pushing a similar measure in the House.

Nielsen called Schumer’s bill a good first step, given that doctors often settle in the states where they do their residencies.

And Dennis Whalen, president of the Healthcare Association of New York State, said he supports Schumer’s measure as well.

“We applaud the senator’s continued leadership in working to ensure more physicians can be trained to address this shortage head-on, preserving patients’ access to physician services,” Whalen said.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com