Improve primary care access before guaranteeing universal health coverage, my address at the National Press Club

The following are my prepared remarks at Health Care Reform: Putting Patients First, held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on July 17th, 2009.

President Obama recently declared that, “We are not a nation that accepts nearly 46 million uninsured men, women, and children.” And indeed, finding a way to provide universal health coverage to every American is one of the focal points in today’s health care debate. There are a variety of ways we can achieve this, ranging from a Medicare for all, single payer system to requiring everyone to purchase health insurance. But no solution can work unless we first deal with the shortage of primary care doctors.

After all, what good is having health insurance if you can’t find a doctor to see you?

As a Nashua, New Hampshire primary care physician, a city that borders the state of Massachusetts, I have had the luxury of closely observing that state’s health reform efforts. And to their credit, Massachusetts currently enjoys near-universal health coverage, in part because of the mandate requiring every resident to obtain health insurance. Many policy experts are predicting that a national plan will closely emulate the Massachusetts model, so it’s worth noting any potential consequences.

Since reform began in 2006, the Massachusetts health care system has been inundated with almost half a million new, previously uninsured, patients, and the demand for medical services has rapidly outpaced physician supply. The wait to see a new primary care doctor is almost 2 months, leading patients to use the emergency room more often for routine visits. In fact, since the universal coverage law was passed, Massachusetts emergency rooms have reported a 7 percent increase in volume, which markedly inflates costs when you consider that treating simple conditions in the ER can be exponentially more expensive than an office visit. It’s no wonder that the plan has placed significant fiscal strain on the state’s budget, which is struggling to contain soaring health spending.

This affects hospitals like Boston Medical Center, which primarily serves the city’s poor. The state’s mandatory health insurance law is causing the medical center, according to a front page story in last Sunday’s Boston Globe, to brace “for dramatic financial losses, which some fear will force it to slash programs and jeopardize care for thousands of poverty-stricken families.”

Furthermore, consider the words of family physician Kate Atkinson, who practices in Amherst, Massachusetts. She had decided to temporarily accept new patients, as 18 doctors in her area had recently closed their practices or moved away.

“There were so many people waiting to get in, it was like opening the floodgates,” she says. “Most of these patients hadn’t seen the doctor in a long time so they had a lot of complicated problems. We literally have 10 calls a day from patients crying and begging.”

She closed her practice to new patients 6 weeks later.

I witness this phenomenon myself every day, with patients from Massachusetts routinely crossing the border to New Hampshire looking for a new primary care doctor.  These are people with chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure – all who need a regular physician to follow them.

And keep in mind that Massachusetts has the highest density of doctors per capita in the country. What do you think will happen to states that do not have a comparable supply of physicians?

Moving away from Massachusetts, let’s look at two other examples where universal coverage was promised before ensuring adequate primary care access. One would be our military veterans, who are guaranteed health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, also known as the VA. Earlier this decade, the wait to see a primary care doctor in the VA routinely exceeded 50 days in various parts of the country. Although that number has improved, a recent report by the Office of the Inspector General concluded that more than a third of veterans still waited a month or more to see a doctor. And with tens of thousands returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan straining an already overburdened VA health system, it’s no wonder that my practice in Nashua, New Hampshire sees a fair amount of veterans who are unable to obtain timely care from their local VA clinic up north in Manchester, or from down in Boston.

Next, consider the care Native Americans receive via the Indian Health Service. Despite having guaranteed health care coverage, President Obama himself cites Indian reservations in South Dakota that have some of the lowest life expectancies in the Western Hemisphere. American Indians are twice as likely to die from diabetes when compared to whites, 60 percent more likely to have a stroke, 30 percent more likely to have high blood pressure and 20 percent more likely to have heart disease. Although each of these conditions can be treated or prevented with timely primary care, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report, patient waits within the Indian Health Service for routine women’s care and general physicals lasted anywhere between two and six months.

It is encouraging that the President and members of Congress recognize the threat that the primary care shortage poses to their health reform efforts. But some of the solutions being discussed, such as reducing medical school debt, increasing funding to the National Health Service Corps, and training more mid-level providers like nurse practitioners and physician assistants, fall woefully short. None will have any immediate impact, which will be especially critical if there’s a distinct possibility that already overwhelmed primary care doctors will be responsible for almost 50 million additional, newly insured, patients overnight.

Instead, we need to value primary care, and make it central to our health system. Rather than being encouraged to squeeze in appointments and rush through office visits, doctors need to be incentivized to practice patient-focused primary care, including, managing chronic diseases, providing preventive medicine guidance, and taking the time to counsel patients.

There’s no question that we need to find a way to provide health coverage for every American. But we must do so in a responsible manner, and that starts with ensuring that we have a strong primary care system first.