/ Modified mar 26, 2012 12:29 p.m.

More M.D.s Needed Under New Health Law

Arizona already well short of national average for primary care physicians

AHCCCS 617x347 Arizona needs 700 more primary-care physicians just to get to the national average.

Implementing the Affordable Care Act will exacerbate Arizona's and the nation's physician shortage, several health care professionals say.

The law's expanded eligibility for health benefits, especially in the Medicaid program for poor people, means more physicians are needed. The shortage is most acute among primary care physicians.

"They're estimating nationally another 16 million added to the Medicaid rosters," says Nancy Johnson, chief operating officer at Tucson’s El Rio Community Health Center, which runs 17 clinics serving 75,000 patients a year. “So primary care and physician shortages are really a legitimate concern for everyone in the community."

Arizona needs 700 more primary care physicians just to come up to the national average, based on figures from the Association of American Medical Colleges. It ranked the state 43rd in 2010, with 68 primary care physicians for every 100,000 people. The national average is 79 per 100,000.

Health professionals blame several factors for the existing shortage, including the economics of being a physician with heavy medical school loans to pay off and Arizona's lack of medical liability tort reform. Bad planning also may have played a part.

"For many, many years, we didn't increase the number of M.D. graduates in medical schools, in fact, for 20 years, because there were several studies saying there would be a surplus," says James Dalen, a cardiologist and dean emeritus of the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

"All those studies were wrong," Dalen says. "In the past few years, we've expanded the class size, we have a branch in Phoenix. Many other schools are expanding. But it's going to take a while to catch up."

Medical tort reform doesn't appear to be in the cards for Arizona. Article 2, Section 31 of the state constitution prohibits capping death or injury liability awards, and no major medical tort reform legislation is in the works.

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