U.S. Senator Tom Udall announced he has introduced legislation to increase access to primary care services in New Mexico and across the country and to address the growing shortage of doctors and other health care professionals in rural and underserved communities. The problem was highlighted earlier this year in a series of articles by the Albuquerque Journal.
New Mexico faces a serious shortage of primary health care providers in every county but Los Alamos; 1,429 doctors practice primary care, but another 219 are needed, according to experts. The reasons for the shortage range from the burden of medical school debt to the same factors that are causing rural communities to lose population overall. Not only does the lack of access to health care impact people’s health, it drags down the economy and quality of life in rural communities.
Udall's Increasing Primary Care Access Act (S. 1978), which is cosponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich, would increase access to health care by improving training programs and accountability in the medical education system in order to better match medical workforce training to the workforce demand for primary care physicians. Improving incentives and rewards for medical students and creating academic programs that focus on primary medical care would help encourage medical students to pursue primary care and work in rural communities.
“Primary care doctors help hold a community together. Many treat families through their entire lives, healing everything from chicken pox to heart disease,” Udall said. “But times and health care needs are changing, and the lack of access to health care is a serious problem in New Mexico, especially in rural communities.”
“Many students enter medical school interested in primary care and working in rural communities,” Udall added. “We need to ensure that those students are getting the training and encouragement they need so that more graduates pursue those positions."
Specifically, Udall's bill helps build a pipeline to supply primary care physicians by:
-Creating centers of excellence that provide special emphasis on primary care in medical schools;
-Offering incentives to encourage medical students to choose primary care residencies;
-Reauthorizing the Teaching Health Center program – community-based, ambulatory patient care centers that can be sites for primary care residency programs, such as those operated by Hidalgo Medical Services serving southwest New Mexico;
-Refocusing graduate medical education dollars on areas underserved in primary care; and
-Funding regional centers of workforce analysis to support primary care residencies in underserved areas.
Udall has worked for many years to improve rural health care by encouraging primary care training programs, tuition repayment assistance for rural and Indian Health Service providers, special training and incentives to encourage students — especially those from rural communities — to return to practice in rural communities, and programs to improve nursing education and increase the number of nurses working in rural communities.
On Monday, he introduced a bill with Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to increase access to health care for rural veterans. The bill is complementary in many ways to the Increasing Primary Care Access Act.
Udall's bill is supported by a number of groups within the medical communities in New Mexico and nationwide, including the New Mexico Primary Care Association, the New Mexico Medical Society, the New Mexico Primary Care Training Consortium, the Hidalgo Medical Services Center for Health Innovation, the National Rural Health Association, the American Osteopathic Association, and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine.
"The Increasing Primary Care Access Act establishes a vital investment in increasing long-term access to medical care for New Mexicans," said Dr. Sam Kankanala, President of the New Mexico Medical Society. "New Mexico Medical Society applauds the Act’s direct focus on primary and rural care and on adding residency positions for physicians in our state."
Seferino Montano, CEO of La Casa Family Health Center which serves 22,000 patients at 12 locations in Eastern New Mexico, added, "New Mexico's health clinics face incredible challenges recruiting and retaining primary care physicians, particularly in our rural communities. Senator Udall's Increasing Primary Care Access Act will provide the resources and infrastructure to increase the supply of Family Practice Physicians and assist organizations like La Casa to ensure that the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans translate into access to high quality health care and improved health outcomes."
Dr. Art Kaufman, a Distinguished Professor of Family and Community Medicine and the Vice Chancellor for Community Health at the University of New Mexico, said, “This bill will be of major benefit to underserved communities in New Mexico– particularly to its rural and frontier communities. We know that physicians from rural areas are three times as likely as physicians from urban areas to practice rural medicine. And we know that 60 to 80 percent of residency graduates practice within 100 miles of where they complete their residencies. So the features of this bill that invest in the pipeline to health careers of youth from underserved areas, and the part that tackles barriers created by Medicare GME to attracting students to primary care residencies and to residencies that are community-based will overcome the current, inappropriate emphasis on primary care training in large, urban teaching hospitals.”