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America has a physician shortage, and Congress has a bipartisan solution


Sept. 21, 2019

Countless Americans living in rural and underserved areas struggle to access the healthcare they need and deserve. On top of rising medical and prescription drug costs, many Americans must travel long distances to access quality medical care because too often rural areas struggle to attract healthcare providers, especially those who are reflective of the communities they serve.
We know that access to good primary care results in people living longer, healthier lives, but too many Alabamians—like residents of other parts of the country—cannot afford the cost and time it takes to visit the nearest provider, sometimes over an hour away.
On top of the access issues patients face, some providers in my state encounter financial obstacles that have forced seven rural Alabama hospitals to close their doors since 2011. Many of the remaining rural hospitals have been forced to cut essential services, such as labor and delivery. Today, just 16 rural hospitals offer these services, and we see the effects reflected in dismal maternal health outcomes across the state.
To make matters worse, studies have long shown that the U.S. is not producing enough physicians to meet current and future needs. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that we will face a shortage of more than 121,300 primary-care and specialty physicians by 2030.
The Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2019, which I introduced with my Republican colleague Rep. John Katko of New York, would increase the number of Medicare-supported residency positions by 3,000 each year for the next five years, for a total of 15,000 new positions. This increase in residency spots would be an essential first step to ensure that every American, especially those in rural and underserved communities, has access to a well-trained physician.
Our bill also requires the Government Accountability Office to study strategies to increase diversity within the health professional workforce. In minority communities, especially those in which men and women see themselves reflected in the long history of deliberately discriminatory and life-threatening practices, such as the Tuskegee experiment, mistrust of the medical community can cause families to stay home rather than seek regular care or participate in clinical trials and medical research that result in cures.
As a result, curable diseases and illnesses go untreated and entire communities are left out of the greatest medical advances of our time. This medical mistrust has contributed to the health disparities we see today that disproportionately affect communities of color and result in lower life expectancy, decreased quality of life and fewer economic opportunities.
According to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, diversity in the healthcare workforce is associated with improved access to care for underserved communities. Further, medical students from rural, economically distressed or minority communities are more likely to choose a career in primary care or practice in an underserved area. In order to tackle healthcare shortage issues across the country, especially those that exist in primary care, we must strengthen pipelines into the medical field for young people from rural, underserved and minority communities.
Supporting a diverse pool of qualified physicians is a critical step in reviving trust lost by the ill effects of historical exploitation of minority communities in the medical field and eliminating racial disparities in health outcomes.
As many residents in rural areas are painfully aware, the number of doctors in our communities is not just a measure of privilege, it is a matter of life and death. Everyone should have access to affordable, quality medical care. To make that belief a reality we need a pipeline of well-trained doctors to serve Americans wherever they live—regardless of race or income.
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