Community Health Centers Face Chronic Physician Shortage
The Bush administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to expand and build community health centers since 2001, but the administration's efforts are being "undermined by a chronic shortage of doctors" at the clinics, the Washington Post reports.
Since 2001, more than 500 centers have been opened or expanded to provide services to 15 million people in urban and rural areas. About 70% of people seeking care at community clinics have annual incomes at or below the federal poverty level and three-quarters are uninsured or are Medicaid beneficiaries.
The number of physicians employed by the centers has increased by 41% since 2001, but many centers have "found it nearly impossible to land the primary care doctors they need to match the growing caseload," according to the Post.
James Macrae, associate administrator for primary health care in the Health Resources and Services Administration, said the Bush administration since the beginning of fiscal year 2002 has increased health center funding by $645 million, and most of that money has gone to hiring and paying medical professionals.
However, some health center officials say the Bush administration has not done enough to address the staff shortages. Some centers say they are unable to compete with salaries offered by private hospitals to attract needed medical professionals.
Many centers rely on the National Health Service Corps to provide staff. The $126 million federal program offers to repay new doctors' medical school bills in exchange for a few years of work in underserved areas. The centers also hire foreign-born doctors trained in the U.S. who can stay in the country for an additional three years if they work in underserved areas.
However, Dan Hawkins, policy director for the National Association of Community Health Centers, said a gap remains. According to Hawkins, the Health Service Corps had to turn away 1,800 doctors who applied last year, and to sustain the program, the organization needs at least $150 million next year and increases to bring funding to $300 million within seven years.
President Bush has proposed $116 million for the program in FY 2008.
Shawn Frick, executive director of the Ohio Association of Community Health Centers, said, "It doesn't do us any good to open up new community health centers if we can't staff them," adding, "We are getting to a point of desperation. ... There is not a single state in this country that is not having a physician problem right now" (Lee, Washington Post, 6/19).