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Cure sought for physician shortage

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published February 17, 2010

Alaska needs to step up its appeal to medical providers if the state wants to be able to meet its citizens' health care needs, according to the Alaska Primary Care Association, which is pushing state lawmakers to take action before more patients fall through the cracks.

"We are trending toward a public health crisis in pockets of the state," said APCA's Shelley Hughes.

The lack of providers is evident in gaps in care in Alaska's big cities and small villages alike, according to Hughes. With no cardiologist in Juneau, heart patients are forced to fly to Seattle for care, and dentists are hard to come by in Southeast, she said.

To help remedy the situation, APCA is pushing state lawmakers to create a financial incentive program for both new and experienced providers. But if Senate Bill 139 doesn't start moving through the system, inaction will kill the proposed cure.

"Alaska is facing a serious shortage of healthcare practitioners, especially in the rural areas of our state, and it is projected to worsen significantly in the next few decades," wrote Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, in a press release last year introducing the legislation.

The bill offers loan repayment and cash incentives for 10 types of health care providers. Physicians, pharmacists and dentists would be eligible for $35,000 to $47,000 per year for up to six years depending on where they worked. The higher incentives are designed to lure practitioners to jobs that are more difficult to fill. Under the same program a second level of providers -- dental hygienists, registered nurses, certified nurse practitioners, physician assistants, physical therapists, clinical psychologists, and clinical social workers -- would qualify for annual incentives of $20,000 to $27,000. A provision also allows for part-time providers to receive incentive payments on a sliding scale.

According to Hughes, Alaska is one of only five states without similarly-structured incentive programs, which makes it hard to compete for new hires when other states have more to offer. Tales abound of hospitals and clinics thinking they have someone hired, only to learn the deal is off because of a more lucrative employment package made in another state, she said.

One of first questions job seekers ask, Hughes said, is "Do you have loan repayment or incentive program?"

Being able to answer yes should help attract new doctors or nurse practitioners struggling with big debt. And by also including experienced medical personnel, the hiring pool expands greatly. Where there are 60,000 new physicians each year to choose from nationally (still too few to meet national demand), by including doctors already in practice the pool grows to 740,000, Hughes said.

To keep pace with the state's needs, 90 medical provider slots need to be filled each year, according to APCA. Under SB 139, that equates to $2.7 million for the first year of the incentive program, growing to $7.4 million by year three, when presumably three times as many providers -- or 270 people -- would be enrolled.

The bill is currently before the Senate Finance Committee. Hughes expects hearings to begin early next month, and she's well aware the current version's multimillion-dollar impact on the state budget may be a sticking point for some legislators.

"We are not going to object if they lower the fiscal note to help it pass," she said. "It's better to do something than nothing."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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