As the Affordable Care Act goes into the waning days of its second open enrollment, the pressure is building on the U.S. healthcare system. More people have health insurance than ever, and this number is expected to continue to increase in the coming few months. In fact, for the 6.7 million people who purchased health insurance in the first enrollment period finding a primary care physician is getting difficult. Simply put, there are not enough primary care doctors to support the increasing number of people with health insurance.
As many as 81 percent of doctors reported that they are either working at full capacity or extended beyond their capacity. In addition, 44 percent of the doctors surveyed are considering cutting back on the number of patients they see in a month. Some doctors even talked about closing their doors to new patients, working part time or retiring altogether. The survey definitely reveals the additional pressure mounted on physicians with newly insured looking to find doctors.
Health plans, on the other hand, are more concerned about the rising competition in this new market, prompting them to cut the number of doctors in networks to curtail costs. This creates a roadblock of sorts for patients who are faced with either waiting for an extended period of time to get an appointment or incur additional out of pocket costs by seeing a doctor that is outside of the network.
With this primary care doctor shortage, the Obama Administration’s original purpose of connecting the uninsured to affordable, fully covered primary care is falling short. Nearly 20 percent of Americans are living in an area with a shortage of primary care physicians, and the supply of doctors isn’t enough to meet the demand. This supply-demand gap is expected to increase further, with nearly 66,000 additional doctors needed to fill this gap by 2016. Another major reason for this gap is that medical students are moving toward higher paying specialty areas instead of the primary care. Fortunately, until now, patients are receiving the care they need by driving farther out of their area, spending more time waiting for care, or settling for a nurse practitioner or an assistant instead of the doctor.
Naturally, this perennial challenge needs a resounding, permanent answer that can curtail this widening gap in primary care doctor supply-demand. One way is to ensure that more primary care physicians are available for the masses. The American Academy of Family Physicians has more than 115,000 member doctors, and it is constantly working to add new physicians, train nurse practitioners and assistants, and expanding their schedules by accepting patients in evening and weekends. Also, patients can utilize the second open enrollment to look for better health plans that give them a shot at easier access to doctors.