Last week, the North Georgia Medical Center in Ellijay, Georgia closed and left yet another county with a shortage of hospital beds. In light of this and other recent hospital closures, a newly released report from GBPI outlines potential solutions to Georgia’s ongoing struggle with lack of doctors, nurses and health staff to meet the state’s growing needs.
Almost two-thirds of Georgia’s counties are below the statewide average in each of the four medical professional categories of nurses, physician assistants, total doctors and primary care physicians per 100,000 residents. Most of the counties with provider ratios below the statewide average are rural. But health care provider shortages are not just a rural issue but rather a statewide concern. Twenty one of the 105 counties falling below the average are not rural, including suburban Atlanta counties Forsyth, Barrow, Cherokee and Gwinnett.
In fact, some areas within urban counties such as DeKalb and Fulton are medically underserved despite top rates of doctors per resident. These medically underserved areas are counties, cities or census tracts with a shortage of specific services (such as primary care, dental, and mental health) or have residents with economic, cultural or linguistic barriers to care. These areas vary in their health care needs based on factors including age, physician specialty, cultural barriers and proximity to facilities.
These shortages threaten families’ ability to access quality care and can undermine communities’ broader economic health and quality of life. How can Georgia lawmakers respond? A new report from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, “Prescribing Remedies for Georgia’s Health Care Provider Shortage,” outlines four promising policy solutions:
- Funding for medical residency programs – Although medical school attendance grew in recent years, there are not enough residency spots for all of Georgia’s medical school graduates. Increasing Georgia’s existing funding of start-up costs for residency programs is a solution that other states are also considering.
- Financial assistance for providers – The current physician loan repayment program is available to about 30 physicians in rural areas for up to four years. The paltry $750,000 investment in this program doesn’t match the state’s growing need.
- Easing scope of practice restrictions – A recent report by the nonprofit consumer advocate Georgia Watch found that Georgia is one of 12 states with the most restrictive practice environments for nurse practitioners. While this is a thorny issue requiring careful balance, finding new ways to expand the ability of nurses to treat patients can help address capacity concerns in underserved communities.
- Improving Medicaid – Extending health coverage and considering higher reimbursement rates for Georgia doctors who accept Medicaid can also increase health system capacity. Kentucky and Arkansas are two states where hospitals and other providers hired more health care staff after accepting the federal money available to states under the national health care law. Georgia lawmakers today are leaving $3 billion on the table every year that would increase health care workforce capacity and improve health care access.
Hospitals continue to close throughout the state, it is urgent that Georgia’s leaders take action to maintain current health facilities and invest in increased health care workforce capacity. Our new report provides a roadmap to clearly understand the problem and to start a thoughtful conversation about strategies to solve it.