Jeopardized Medicare Funding Will Negatively Impact Physician Workforce

As our nation moves rapidly toward a projected physician shortage of greater than 90,000 physicians by 2020, the natural solution would seem simple – accept and train more students in medical school. However, graduation from medical school is only the first half of the journey in becoming a physician. Graduate medical education (GME) and completion of a residency training is the additional half and a requirement for licensure and specialty training.

As the number of applicants to medical school reaches an all-time high, the current number of residency training positions not only remains insufficient to allow medical student expansion, but it actually runs the risk of being reduced by jeopardized Medicare funding.

Our Congressmen in Washington are fully aware of the current and projected physician workforce shortage created by both a significant wave of forthcoming physician retirements, as well as, increasing demand for physician health care services as the baby boomer population ages, increasing numbers of chronic disease patients, and over 30 million Americans entering the health insurance market as a result of health reform law.

In response to these trends, several national organizations, including the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, have called for an increase in the number of physicians trained in the United States – both growth in number of medical schools and parallel increases in the number of residency positions to accommodate the last stage of medical graduates’ required training.

During the last two years of health care reform dialogue, there has been a recurring theme on which both Democratic and Republican policymakers agreed that a solution must be found to ensure that our country’s health care system provides accessible, affordable care to more Americans. To meet these challenges, we must educate more physicians.

Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences’ College of Osteopathic Medicine, the largest medical school in Missouri, along with other medical schools across the country have worked to graduate more physicians to meet the nation’s growing demands. However, these efforts must be met with similar efforts at the national level to protect GME funding.

As the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (also called the “Super Committee”) was created to identify $1.5 trillion in federal budget cuts over the next ten years, Medicare GME funding is in serious jeopardy. In fact, both Congress and the Administration are eyeing cuts that will substantially threaten the stability and continuity of both the nation’s residency training programs and the hospitals that provide care to many Americans.

Medicare provides the principal funding for the training of resident physicians. Reducing this funding in any way will have a detrimental impact on hospitals with teaching programs for physician residents and on those who rely on them for care. These programs currently receive approximately $9.5 billion annually, which is used to fund a currently insufficient number of residency slots each year. Cutting funding for GME programs would result in fewer physicians being trained, and as a result, less access to care and fewer patients being cared for.

These are real and pressing problems to be addressed, and the struggle to balance reduction of our nation’s deficit with the need to ensure the health and well-being of future generations must be approached carefully and thoughtfully. I urge Missouri and Kansas citizens to join together in asking their representatives and senators to sustain Medicare GME funding and oppose any cuts to this critical funding. Simply put, our healthcare system and our patients’ lives depend on it.

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