Arizona Anticipates Doctor Shortage After Federal Health Care Starts

January 02, 2013

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)
There may be a shortage of doctors just after the new year, as the new federal health care program begins.

Some experts are predicting a severe shortage of doctors in Arizona when the new federal health care program starts in the new year. The flood of newly insured patients could mean longer wait times to see a doctor in some parts of the state.

More than 1 million people in Arizona are expected to purchase insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Another 300,000 low-income patients are eligible for coverage under recent expansion of the state’s Medicaid system called AHCCCS. That is going to put added pressure on local doctor’s offices and hospitals as people who have finally got insurance seek treatment.   

Doctor Atul Grover is with the D.C. based American Association of Medical Colleges, and he has done a lot of research on Arizona’s health care system.   

“There’s a shortage of approximately 800 primary care physicians and almost 1,000 other special care physicians, and I think there’s going to be a real challenge in getting everybody the care they need,” Grover said.

A few years ago, Arizona had about 13,000 general practitioners, but Grover said the state will need 40,000 doctors by the year 2020. He said more people are living longer, and many doctors themselves are approaching retirement age, so there is a strong demand for a new generation of medical workers.   

“We have people turning 65 and going on Medicare every eight seconds, every day for the next 20 years. So, this will get a little bit worse as we expand the mature population," Grover said.

Michael Grossman is associate dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. He said the state’s shortage of doctors will not be felt immediately, but it has the potential to work against one of the main goals of the Obama Administration to provide patients with enough preventive care to keep them out of the hospital.  

“That would again create the need to use urgent care centers and particularly emergency rooms and overwhelm them and that could be a disaster,” said Grossman.

Local health care advocates are making some recommendations in hopes the state can overcome the doctor shortage. Kim Van Pelt is with St. Luke’s Health Initiatives in Phoenix.  

"For example making use of people other than physicians to provide health care such as nurses and physician’s assistants or other health care workers,” Van Pelt said.

She said more patients may also have to visit their doctor on the Internet instead of meeting in person. Van Pelt said Arizona’s medical schools are partly to blame for the shortage.  

 “Arizona currently has a lot of medical school graduates who are going to other states to do their residencies,” said Van Pelt.

That is because graduate programs in other states typically pay more or provide better incentives than medical students receive in Arizona. Grover said the federal government does provide some funding for medical schools, but he said it is not enough.  

“And, this has really been the result of a cap that Congress put on Medicare support for its share of the costs of training new physicians back in 1997 when we thought that people wouldn’t live as long and that they wouldn’t be as obese and they wouldn’t live with as many chronic diseases,” Grover said.

Advocates are also encouraging businesses and private donors to step-up investment in Arizona’s medical schools.