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Doctors Shortage Threatens to Undermine Health Care Reform


Lawmakers told US needs 125,000 more primary care physicians


WASHINGTONDC - A growing shortage of physicians, especially primary care doctors, could undermine Congressional efforts to reform the health care system, physicians groups told the House Committee on Small Business today. During a hearing before the panel, witnesses testified that the strain of insuring 47 million Americans, coupled with the medical needs of the aging baby boomer population, could overwhelm the system if steps are not taken in the short term to address an estimated shortage of 125,000 physicians in the U.S. by 2025.


"Health care coverage does not guarantee access to care," said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), the Chairwoman of the House Committee on Small Business. "If health care reform does not tackle the physician workforce shortage issue, Americans may have trouble getting medical treatment, even though they are insured."


The shortage of general practice physicians is being fueled by a number of factors. The current system encourages young physicians, who typically owe more than $140,000 in loans when they graduate, to choose specialty practices in which they can earn twice as much as a family doctor. In 2005, only eight percent of medical students entered the field. Even as the number of new primary care physicians declines, demand for their services is on the rise, and many experts predict a shortage of 40,000 physicians over the next ten years.


"Simple economics are driving this phenomenon and, until that changes, the gap between the number of doctors we need and the number we have will grow," Velázquez said.


Velázquez noted that Democrats are already taking steps to help address the physician shortage. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) sets aside $2.5 billion to expand community health centers and provide educational debt relief to get thousands of new doctors and health professionals into the field faster, especially in underserved and rural areas. Nonetheless, it was clear in today's hearing that more would need to be done to further incentivize doctors to practice medicine in those fields facing a workforce shortage.


"These small medical practices are critical to the care of millions and we need to ensure they remain a strong part of our health system's foundation," Velázquez said. "While the Recovery Act took some positive initial steps toward remedying this problem, we'll have to continue working to address the shortage through measures like the health care reform bill."


During the hearing, witnesses told the Committee that health reform policy needs to grow a larger pool of medical professionals to meet the nation's needs. They said proposals providing incentives such as the National Health Service Corps to help medical students pay for tuition, or residency training programs geared towards general medicine, would make the primary care field more attractive to new doctors. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate are currently considering legislation to update the nation's health care system. Some observers expect the House and Senate to pass legislation before Congress breaks early next month for its annual August district work period.

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Click here to view video from the hearing. 


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