Time to Remedy Georgia’s Health Care Provider Shortages

As published in the AJC June 26, 2016

Georgia needs a health care system that is sustainable. The state needs to focus on promising solutions to its health care crisis and not waste time gazing in the rear view mirror at missed opportunities. When a hospital closes, as one in Ellijay did this month, it hurts the whole community and carries ramifications for the economy of the whole state of Georgia.

A Republican Georgia lawmaker with as much knowledge about the state’s health care system and public policy as any elected state official sounded an alarm with those ruminations during a public radio interview this month. State Sen. Renee Unterman, chair of the senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, said she will push legislation in next year’s General Assembly to find some way for Georgia to belatedly accept billions of federal dollars to help stanch the flow of red ink at Georgia’s hospitals and throughout the state’s health care system.

Closing Georgia’s health insurance coverage gap through expanded Medicaid eligibility is a critical step to help the state’s medical providers get paid for services they now deliver charitably, while also giving more than 300,000 people who fall into the gap access to treatment.

Administrators blamed charity care costs as a significant factor when Ellijay’s North Georgia Medical Center closed this month. That indicates many of the people who relied on that hospital are likely among the hundreds of thousands of uninsured Georgians who get sick or injured and can’t afford to pay for treatment. When its Ellijay hospital closed, Gilmer joined about 50 other Georgia counties without any licensed hospital beds. Plans are to reopen the building in the fall, but just with emergency room services.

You’ve probably heard about Georgia’s rural hospital crisis. Yet rural counties like Gilmer are not the only communities dealing with below state averages of doctors, nurses or other type of health care professional. Barrow, Cherokee, Forsyth and Gwinnett in suburban Atlanta are among the 144 counties across Georgia short at least one type of health care giver, according to a new Georgia Budget and Policy Institute study.

Georgia can take steps to relieve this crisis. The state can:

  • Expand state funding to create more residency spots for medical school graduates in underserved areas.
  • Increase the state’s investment in a medical school loan repayment program that encourages new doctors to set up practice in rural areas.
  • Expand the kinds of treatment Georgia nurses can offer to help solve health care provider shortages in underserved areas.
  • Extend health coverage to hundreds of thousands of Georgians through Medicaid expansion and send a $3 billion ripple through the health care system that can create new jobs for doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

Lawmakers created a tax credit program this year to spur contributions to ailing rural hospitals. This can help, but Georgia is quickly losing health care treatment capacity at a time the state is already short of doctors and nurses. It is time for an urgent and multipronged approach.

Georgia’s uninsured people and its reeling health care providers need help, stat.

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