The urgent need for primary care physicians as outlined in a recent News story is startling, to say the least. But there is some serious thought being given to solutions that would benefit Western New York and the nation.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s Resident Physician Shortage Act would increase the number of Medicare-supported physician training slots by 15,000 nationwide over the next few years. It’s a smart approach whose emphasis would be on providing doctors to rural hospitals that have physician shortages.
The New York Democrat’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 of Representatives.
The primary care physician shortage has been at the forefront of discussion for some time, but the numbers released by Schumer’s office serve as a blunt reminder of the challenges and consequences. In Western New York, the number of primary care physicians plummeted by nearly a quarter between 2010 and 2013. The state’s four westernmost counties had 74 primary care physicians per 100,000 people in 2010. By last year, that figure had dropped to 57 for every 100,000, a 23 percent decline.
The reasons for the shortage are varied and affect rural areas especially hard because of the difficulty of recruiting young doctors to practice in Buffalo, let alone Springville, Attica, Arcade and Medina. Doctors are human, too (just in case that fact gets lost) and besides tending patients want to enjoy a mix of arts, culture and entertainment.
They may also have families and need child care support more easily found in larger cities, or spouses who also need gainful employment in professional fields. With a nod to the positive signs of growth that the governor’s Buffalo Billion has brought to the area, that effort is still new and some doctors’ spouses may yet have a difficult time finding professional employment in their chosen fields.
The lower reimbursement rates paid to doctors here compared to other parts of the country is also a challenge. And high liability costs do not help when doctors can go to states like Texas for a more hospitable environment. If that isn’t enough, in Western New York there is an aging number of physicians and aging population that requires more exhaustive care.
Buffalo has at least some advantages. It’s economy is starting to grow and people are moving back into the city. It is hard to compete with the social advantages offered by a Chicago or a New York City, but Buffalo is fortunate to have the Philharmonic Orchestra, the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres and theater productions as part of a varied arts culture.
And there is this area’s close proximity to Toronto, one- to one-and-a-half hour plane rides to New York and Chicago and a 3½-hour drive to Pittsburgh. But getting to those places takes a little work, as opposed to the 30-minute drive-time to points of interest from big cities.
Demand for doctors is also expected to increase because of the Affordable Care Act, which provides insurance coverage to more people.
Schumer’s legislation could help fill Western New York’s need for additional slots for residents, training and some fix on Medicare rates. It may not be the only answer to this difficult issue, but at least offers a good start.