Doctor shortage likely to worsen with health care law
by ANNIE LOWREY, ROBERT PEAR
July 31, 2012
In the Inland Empire, an economically depressed region in Southern California, President Obama's health care law is expected to extend insurance coverage to more than 300,000 people by 2014. But coverage will not necessarily translate into care: Local health experts doubt there will be enough doctors to meet the area's needs. There are not enough now.
Other places around the country, including the Mississippi Delta, Detroit and suburban Phoenix, face similar problems. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that in 2015 the country will have 62,900 fewer doctors than needed. And that number will more than double by 2025, as the expansion of insurance coverage and the aging of baby boomers drive up demand for care. Even without the health care law, the shortfall of doctors in 2025 would still exceed 100,000.
Health experts, including many who support the law, say there is little that the government or the medical profession will be able to do to close the gap by 2014, when the law begins extending coverage to about 30 million Americans. It typically takes a decade to train a doctor.
"We have a shortage of every kind of doctor, except for plastic surgeons and dermatologists," said Dr. G. Richard Olds, the dean of the new medical school at the University of California, Riverside, founded in part to address the region's doctor shortage. "We'll have a 5,000-physician shortage in 10 years, no matter what anybody does."
Experts describe a doctor shortage as an "invisible problem." Patients still get care, but the process is often slow and difficult. In Riverside, it has left residents driving long distances to doctors, languishing on waiting lists, overusing emergency rooms and even forgoing care.
"It results in delayed care and higher levels of acuity," said Dustin Corcoran, the chief executive of the California Medical Association, which represents 35,000 physicians. People "access the health care system through the emergency department, rather than establishing a relationship with a primary care physician who might keep them from getting sicker."
In the Inland Empire, encompassing the counties of Riverside and San Bernardino, the shortage of doctors is already severe. The population of Riverside County swelled 42 percent in the 2000s, gaining more than 644,000 people. It has continued to grow despite the collapse of one of the country's biggest property bubbles and a jobless rate of 11.8 percent in the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metro area.