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AHA-Backed Doc Shortage Bills Drive Patient Access to Care

The bill will allow for more federally-funded residencies to drive more patient access to care.

AHA supports a new bill that would reduce physician shortages and drive patient access to care.

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- The AHA has given its seal of approval on a new Senate bill to reduce doctor shortages that could have adverse effects on patient access to care.

The Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act (S.1301) serves as companion legislation to a similar bill introduced in the House of Representatives in early May. If passed, the bills would create 15,000 Medicare-funded residency positions across the country that would be distributed on a needs-based hierarchy.

This hierarchy would prioritize teaching hospitals that are currently teaching medical students beyond their cap, hospitals in states with new medical schools, hospitals that specialize in community-based or outpatient practice, and hospitals with a rural healthcare track.

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL), Dean Heller (R-NV), and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced the bipartisan bill into the Senate earlier this week.

Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and Ryan Costello (R-PA) have co-sponsored the House bill.

The Congressmen introduced the legislation in both houses in response to the physician shortage crisis gripping the country. By 2030, the US can expect a shortage of 105,000 physicians, per data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

According to Nelson, one of the Senate bill’s co-sponsor’s, the problem began in 1997 when Congress passed the Balanced Budget Act. This legislation capped the number of federally-funded medical residencies. Between this cap and population growth, the industry now lacks the number of clinicians needed to serve the nation’s patients.

AHA has expressed its support for both pieces of legislation, saying that they will be instrumental in filling the physician gap across the country by distributing more residencies in high-need areas.

“Your legislation outlines a hierarchy for distributing the new slots, prioritizing teaching hospitals that are currently training residents in excess of their cap, those in states with newly opened medical schools, those that emphasize training physicians in community-based or outpatient hospital settings, and those that operate a rural training track,” AHA Executive Vice President Thomas P. Nickels wrote.

“We believe this approach responsibly addresses the nation’s urgent need for additional physicians.”

The bill also calls for a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation into diversity in medical residencies, a step AHA also supports.

“The AHA is firmly committed to ensuring that hospitals’ staff and governance reflect the communities they serve, and your bill would help make progress toward that worthy goal,” Nickels added.

Physician shortages have a direct negative impact on patient care access, many industry experts assert. Patient wait times for doctor’s appointments have increased by 30 percent since 2014, according to a 2017 Merritt Hawkins survey.

The average wait time in 30 metropolitan areas is 24 days, an increase from 18.5 days in 2014, 20.5 days in 2009, and 21 days in 2004.

Merritt Hawkins President Mark Smith noted that these increased wait times are the result of a growing physician shortage problem across the country.

“Physician appointment wait times are the longest they have been since we began conducting the survey,” Smith said in a press release. “Growing physician appointment wait times are significant indicators that the nation is experiencing a shortage of physicians.”

As the healthcare system continues to evolve, ways will need to be found to ensure access to physicians, through increases in the number of medical residency positions available nationwide, through the use of innovative staffing models that redistribute some of the work previously handled by physicians to other clinicians, through equitable payments to physicians, through the use of online and mobile technology, and through other methods.

Supporting more federally-funded residencies, as both bills would if passed, is an effective start to mitigating the physician shortage and patient healthcare access issue, the report said.

Both the House and Senate bills are currently awaiting debate and a vote.

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