The Department of Health reports every county in Washington state faces “some type of health professional shortage area,” meaning there aren’t enough primary care physicians, dental workers or mental health providers to service the local population. This problem is all but certain to grow as federal health reforms require an estimated 500,000 more Washington residents sign up for insurance through Medicaid or the state’s health exchange beginning in January 2014.
We must start asking ourselves where all these new patients will go for preventive screenings, treatment of illnesses, and referrals to specialists.
I’ve found a few maps that provide more context for Monday’s Seattle Times editorial in support of SB 5615, a bill that would give the Washington Student Achievement Council the authority to strengthen its ailing physician loan repayment and scholarship program by pursuing private donations.
Take a look at the map below to get a sense of what percentage of Washingtonians live in a shortage area compared to the populations in the other 49 states. Between 19 and 33 percent of our population lacks access to health professionals. We’re in the same boat as many other states, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. Notice how states like California and Minnesota have more doctors? Both also offer numerous loan repayment programs. (Click here to see the Association of American Medical Colleges‘ searchable database of loan repayment and forgiveness programs by state.)
Physician loan repayment programs aren’t THE solution, but they are a powerful tool to recruit and retain health care providers to serve the state’s under-served residents. Washington state has embraced Obamacare, and it’s helpful to see lawmakers like state Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, take steps to ensure there are enough doctors around to treat an expanding patient pool. The Senate has passed SB 5615. The House should do the same.
Scroll down to see four other interesting maps that offer a visual, county-by-county look at health professional shortages in the areas of primary care, mental health, and dental care. The final PDF shows where medically undeserved populations and areas are located around the state.
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