Health-care providers push for financial help bill

Posted: Monday, February 22, 2010

Health-care providers are stepping up their campaign for the Legislature to pass a bill establishing state incentives to recruit medical professionals to the state.

Shortages in several key areas, including physicians, are contributing to medical costs being sharply higher in Alaska - 50 percent to 100 percent for some procedures, according to the state Division of Insurance - than in the Pacific Northwest.

Senate Bill 139, sponsored by Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, has been in the Senate Finance Committee since last year.

A health care coalition led by the Alaska Primary Care Association hopes to persuade senators on the Finance Committee to move the bill out of committee in time to give it a chance of passage before the Legislature's required April 19 adjournment.

The legislation establishes a program to repay part of the hefty medical school debts incurred by new physicians, dentists and eight other health occupations that are in short supply, according to Shelley Hughes, government affairs director for the Primary Care Association.

A separate cash incentive program is aimed at encouraging experienced medical professionals to work in small communities.

Health care has been expanding in Alaska, with employment in the industry rising more than 8 percent in the last two years, but there are imbalances.

"There is a good supply of specialists in urban areas. The shortage is in primary care, particularly in rural communities," as well as in certain professions like psychologists, said Robert Sewell, a health policy expert with the state Department of Health and Social Services.

Financial aid programs have proven to be effective in recruiting and can also be used to target underserved communities and critical specialties, Sewell said. Juneau has no cardiologist, for example.

Loan repayment programs typically target young graduates just beginning medical practices, but many health providers in rural communities prefer older, experienced professionals because they usually adapt more easily to adverse weather and sometimes-challenging living conditions.

To recruit experienced professionals, a cash incentive works better.

During a Feb. 15 workshop in Anchorage, Hughes and two state Department of Health and Social Services officials, Alice Rarig and Sewell, laid out statistics illustrating the seriousness of the problem.

Rarig and Sewell said the state's most recent data indicates that almost 12 percent of physician positions in health care institutions in the state, including hospitals and tribal health consortiums, are vacant. The vacancy within the tribal organizations, which serve rural communities, is 23 percent.

Similar data was reported for other skilled professions. More than 25 percent of public health nurse positions are vacant; 16 percent of physician assistant positions are vacant; and similar percentages were reported for physical therapists and psychiatrists.

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