July 8, 2013

The scarcity of medical professionals, highlighted in the July 2 Metro article “Prescription for renewal: More doctors,” is not confined to Prince George’s County. Many recent studies and reports have documented the growing shortage of primary-care physicians throughout the United States, a crisis that will only worsen when the Affordable Care Act provisions kick in, giving millions more people access to health insurance. 

Access to medical insurance will not necessarily equate to access to medical care unless the nation adds physicians and other health-care professionals to the workforce. Many federal programs aim to encourage the pursuit of medical degrees, including scholarships and loan-repayment programs. One of the most promising, however, remains unimplemented by the Obama administration. Section 5315 of the Affordable Care Act authorizes a “Public Health Sciences Track” that will provide 850 scholarships annually to students of certain health professions who commit to two years of service as officers in the uniformed Public Health Service Commissioned Corps for each year of funded education. The officers’ primary mission is providing public health services to underserved populations, just like those in Prince George’s County and elsewhere around the country.

A study prepared for the Department of Health and Human Services estimates the cost of the track to be$160 million per year. Compared to a similar scholarship program offered by the National Health Service Corps, the track costs less per physician trained but provides twice the payoff in obligated service. Yet, three years after the Affordable Care Act became law, the Public Health Sciences Track has been ignored by Health and Human Services, which has not requested funds to implement the program, and by Congress, which has failed to appropriate funding for it.

Gerard M. Farrell, Landover

The writer is executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service.