By Tim Talley
The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — Access to physicians in Oklahoma, especially in rural parts of the state, could become even more limited when the federal health care law kicks in next year and thousands of previously uninsured Oklahomans obtain coverage.
Shortages of primary care physicians across the state could lead to higher patient loads, delays in visits to the doctor and more reliance on other health professionals such as nurse practitioners and physicians assistants when the new health care law goes into effect on Jan. 1, officials said.
“All of a sudden there’s an increase in the number of patients that have insurance,” said Jim Bishop, deputy executive director of the Physician Manpower Training Commission, a state agency that administers programs designed to improve medical care in rural and underserved areas of the state.
“There’s going to be so many people flooding doctor’s offices,” Bishop said. “It’s not going to make physicians happy.”
In 2010, Oklahoma ranked 43rd in the nation in the number of primary care physicians practicing in the state with 2,817, or about 76 doctors per 100,000 residents, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Andy Fosmire, managing director of the Rural Health Association of Oklahoma, said the shortage of primary care providers is worse in rural parts of the state, where access to health care could become more difficult under the health care law.
“There’s a lot of fear that 2014 is going to hit and all of a sudden 30 million people are going to appear at a primary care physician’s doorstep,” Fosmire said. “The potential is there. They’ll have to fill that gap.”
The state already offers a variety of programs to provide financial incentives for physicians who practice in underserved areas of the state. They include a scholarship program that provides $60,000 over four years to primary care providers who practice in rural areas of the state and a medical loan repayment program which provides up to $160,000 over four years to help physicians in underserved areas repay their student loans.
The programs help fill doctor shortages in rural communities where hospitals are threatened with having to shut down, officials said.
“It’s very difficult to get successful recruitment in our rural areas,” said Teresa Huggins, CEO of the Stigler Health and Wellness Center, a non-profit health care center in Stigler, population 2,685. Huggins said two medical doctors and two osteopathic physicians staff the center and it is recruiting a primary care physician to staff its clinic in Eufaula.
“A lot of it is because of the remote area. Just the lack of access to the same amenities in the larger towns,” Huggins said.
“Part of it is perception,” said Dean Turner, administrator at Perry Memorial Hospital in Perry, population 5,126. “It is different than say going to Oklahoma City.” The Noble County city has two medical doctors and the hospital is recruiting for a family practice physician.
Health care administrators said it helps to recruit physicians with family ties to rural areas that are underserved, but Charles H. Greene Jr., administrator of the Cordell Memorial Hospital in Washita County, said that does not always work. Of six students from Cordell who are in medical school, “none of them are coming back,” Greene said.
“No one wants to come out in the rural setting. It’s very difficult,” he said.