06 Apr 2008

Demand for Health Services Explodes in Massachusetts

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Socialized health care in Massachusetts produces strained resources. Who would have imagined that? Certainly not the New York Times.

Once they discover that she is Dr. Kate, the supplicants line up to approach at dinner parties and ballet recitals. Surely, they suggest to Dr. Katherine J. Atkinson, a family physician here, she might find a way to move them up her lengthy waiting list for new patients.

Those fortunate enough to make it soon learn they face another long wait: Dr. Atkinson’s next opening for a physical is not until early May — of 2009.

In pockets of the United States, rural and urban, a confluence of market and medical forces has been widening the gap between the supply of primary care physicians and the demand for their services. Modest pay, medical school debt, an aging population and the prevalence of chronic disease have each played a role.

Now in Massachusetts, in an unintended consequence of universal coverage, the imbalance is being exacerbated by the state’s new law requiring residents to have health insurance.

Since last year, when the landmark law took effect, about 340,000 of Massachusetts’ estimated 600,000 uninsured have gained coverage. Many are now searching for doctors and scheduling appointments for long-deferred care.

Here in western Massachusetts, Dr. Atkinson’s bustling 3,000-patient practice, which was closed to new patients for several years, has taken on 50 newcomers since she hired a part-time nurse practitioner in November. About a third were newly insured, Dr. Atkinson said. Just north of here in Athol, the doctors at North Quabbin Family Physicians are now seeing four to six new patients a day, up from one or two a year ago.

Dr. Patricia A. Sereno, state president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said an influx of the newly insured to her practice in Malden, just north of Boston, had stretched her daily caseload to as many as 22 to 25 patients, from 18 to 20 a year ago. To fit them in, Dr. Sereno limits the number of 45-minute physicals she schedules each day, thereby doubling the wait for an exam to three months.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could get the government to force those rich investment bankers and hedge fund managers to pay for your health care? Unfortunately, as the late Ayn Rand pointed out, that inevitably means then that you have to pay for health care for every unemployed wino and heroin addict yourself, and you get to stand behind them in line the next time you’re sick.

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