“Yeah, I think for primary care, but I think the market can adjust to it,” says Joshua Sharfstein, the Maryland secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene. “We have a lot of specialists, but a lot of specialists do some primary care. And I think they’re going to increasingly find that attractive.”
Sharfstein also notes that Kaiser Permanente has just announced it will serve Maryland’s rapidly expanding Medicaid population by offering a managed care plan in that market. “They built a huge center in Bowie,” he points out and, “they have a huge one in Montgomery County, another one in Baltimore City.”
But some entitlement programs may not pay rates doctors find attractive. And government policy has failed to produce an adequate supply of primary care physicians, some analysts say. That could mean long waits for care in places such as California, where Medicaid rates are among the lowest in the nation and where lawmakers just decided against erasing a recent 10 percent cut in order to help balance the state’s budget.
Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, says the difficulties Medicaid enrollees in the state have historically had finding doctors have been addressed by a requirement that managed care plans give medical appointments within 10 days of a request for one.
But it’s unclear how well plans are complying with that standard. And Wright says he’s worried about whether they will meet it with so many people enrolling in California’s expanded Medicaid program. “We’re very focused on this,” he says.
Thanks to increased funding under the health care law, community health centers have expanded in California and elsewhere to meet the expected growth in demand for care. For instance, the expansion money has helped the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in South Los Angeles respond to a 40 percent increase in patients over the past year, says CEO Jim Mangia.
The health law has fueled “a huge number of people seeking to access health care services who had never accessed it before,” he says. But Mangia and other center directors say a big shortage of primary care doctors is making it hard for them to add to staff. “There needs to be much more investment in training and residency slots for primary care,” he says.
Dean Germano, CEO of the Shasta Community Health Center in Redding, Calif., says Medicaid enrollment has grown 20 percent in the county, as has the demand for services at his center. It’s the source of care for Medicaid managed care enrollees but has had to place a freeze on the adult enrollees it treats, Germano says.
Medicaid managed care enrollees are supposed to establish a relationship with a primary care provider, but the center has had 5,000 enrollees assigned to it that it has yet to see. “We’re going to have to change the cottage industry” of one doctor treating one patient, he says. “We’re going to have to find ways to serve groups of people.”
He also says the government needs to fund more primary care residency slots through Medicare. “It will find it’s equilibrium,” Germano predicts. “The problem is it requires government to do something.”