HHS to spend $250 million to increase number of primary-care providers

By Darryl Fears
Thursday, June 17, 2010

In an attempt to address a national shortage of health-care workers, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday that the federal government will spend $250 million in programs to increase the number of doctors, nurses and other care providers.

The money is the first allotment from the Prevention and Public Health Fund, created by the new health-care law, the Obama administration said in a statement. It includes $168 million to train 500 new primary-care physicians over the next five years, $30 million to encourage 600 nursing students to attend school full-time and complete their education, and $32 million to create 600 new physician assistants.

As the health law inches toward full implementation in 2014, the nation faces a major shortage of primary-care doctors and nurses "due to the needs of an aging population and a decline in the number of medical students choosing primary care," the announcement said. In addition, thousands of aging baby boomers who are doctors and nurses are eyeing retirement.

The Health Resources and Services Administration will use some of the money to repay the loans of medical school graduates who agree to practice primary care in underserved rural and urban areas, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Grants will be available to community colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and historically black universities, which were recently ranked as the top producers of primary-care doctors. Students will be able to tap new financial aid, and health professionals working in underserved areas will get expanded tax benefits.

"These new investments will strengthen our primary care workforce to ensure that more Americans can get the quality care they need to stay healthy," Sebelius said in a statement.

Without action, HHS said, the nation would face a shortage of 21,000 primary-care clinicians.

But an analyst for the Association of American Medical Colleges suggested that the number, which includes doctors, nurses and others, is probably much greater than that. The organization projects a shortage of 42,000 primary-care doctors in 2020 and 47,000 in 2025.

Atul Grover, chief advocacy officer for the AAMC, said the government plan is a genuine effort to address a widening workforce shortage that has been long foretold.

"It's just a small first step, but it's a step in the right direction," Grover said.

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