Without investing in physician training, health care bill creates aims without the means

An important piece of legislation designed to improve quality and lower costs in our fractured and inefficient health care system has received a second chance in the Special Session after dying in the House when time ran out on the 82nd Texas Legislature. However, because of other actions taken by our legislators that defund primary care residency training and other programs to bolster the physician workforce now and in the future, Senate Bill 8’s laudable goals are left without the means to achieve them.

The overarching goal of S.B. 8 is to reverse the negative trend in our health care system, to bend the cost curve by testing and implementing various performance-based payment methods that provide incentives for improved patient outcomes. It achieves this through two key mechanisms: the creation of health care collaboratives and the creation of the Texas Institute of Health Care Quality and Efficiency.

As envisioned in the bill, health care collaboratives clinically integrate physicians, hospitals, diagnostic labs, imaging centers, and other health care providers, aligning financial incentives to keep patients healthy and out of the hospital and emergency room. They are designed to move the delivery system away from a fee-for-service based system—where physicians and hospitals are paid for quantity of services over quality—to one in which doctors, hospitals, and other providers are accountable for the overall care of the patient and the total cost of the care provided.

Mounting evidence supports improved outcomes and lower costs achieved through this type of coordinated care. It works because patients receive care from a medical team, led by a primary care physician, that integrates all aspects of preventive, acute, and chronic needs using the best available evidence and appropriate technology to ensure patients receive the right care, at the right time, in the right place, at the right value.

Equally as important is the Texas Institute of Health Care Quality and Efficiency, which provides a safe harbor from antitrust laws for hospitals, insurers, and physicians to experiment with alternative payment and delivery systems.

A dedicated institute emphasizes experimentation at the state and community level, further encouraging the testing of health care provider collaboration, health care delivery models, and coordination of health care services to improve health care quality, accountability, education, and contain costs in Texas. Through regulation and rulemaking, our state and its agencies can ultimately shape how reform occurs, and this legislation provides the necessary medium for trial and error, adjustment and adaptation.

It is no secret that Texas faces a severe physician shortage, especially among the primary care physicians who are uniquely trained to address a variety of disorders and chronic diseases across multiple organ systems. By 2015, Texas will need more than 4,500 additional primary care physicians and other providers to care for the state’s underserved population.

Over the past few sessions, the Texas Legislature has put in place several provisions designed to increase the number of primary care physicians in our state and to draw those physicians to the rural and underserved areas of the state that need them most. Our elected officials expanded primary care graduate medical education and training, implemented education loan repayments for primary care physicians, and supported medical student primary care preceptorships—each proven to make a positive impact on increasing the primary care workforce.

How easily these gains can be reversed. The 82nd Legislature took a giant step backward when it chose to cut state support of medical residencies by 44 percent, from $106 million in funding for the current biennium to $59.6 million in 2012-2013; slash loan repayment programs, allocating $5.6 million to one repayment program for the first year only and zeroing out another program set up to meet the needs of Texas children; and completely eliminate the Statewide Primary Care Preceptorship Program.

Texas’ 28 family medicine residency programs prepare about 200 new family physicians each year for practice and these programs manage primary care clinics that deliver well-coordinated, cost-effective care to communities that need it. A significant portion of the care they provide is for Medicaid and CHIP patients, Medicare patients, and the uninsured. Many programs already operate at dangerously narrow margins, often teetering on the brink of closure, and proposed budget cuts could be the final nail in the coffin.

Cuts to the loan repayment programs alone could affect up to 1.1 million Texans, by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s estimate. Because of lack of funds to recruit new physicians to underserved areas, 750,000 patients could see diminished access to care, and the 426,000 currently served by 142 doctors in the program would likewise have difficulties finding a replacement physician to care for them.

Studies of the preceptorship programs in Texas indicate that exposing medical students to primary care clinical experience early in their training, like that provided by the Texas Statewide Preceptorship Program, is an effective method of increasing the number of primary care physicians and expanding access to primary care in underserved populations. Not funding this program further deteriorates our state’s ability to produce the next generation of primary care physicians.

In addition to patient care, physicians contribute to the state economy, which can be of particular benefit to rural and underserved communities. A March 2011 study by the American Medical Association revealed that through supporting jobs, purchasing goods and services, and generating tax revenue, office-based physicians contributed $1.4 trillion in economic activity and supported 4 million jobs nationwide. And the study found that office-based physicians are unique in the health care system in that they almost always contribute more to state economies than hospitals, nursing homes, and home health agencies.

Without investing in an adequate primary care base our state will not have the network of physicians it needs to care for a population ballooning at both ends of the age spectrum, and health care costs will inevitably continue their unsustainable march higher.

All is not lost. Texas has a narrow window of opportunity to identify state-based strategies that will trigger dramatic improvements in our health care delivery system, empower patients to better understand their health care choices and responsibilities, increase competition in the insurance market, and lower overall costs.

Should S.B. 8 pass during the Special Session, its goals can be achieved eventually; the bill lays the foundation to re-engineer the fractured health care system to one that serves patients and bends the cost curve to make the system sustainable long term.

The 82nd Legislature fumbled on ensuring we have an adequate workforce to make these goals a reality, but we hope that future legislatures will recommit to primary care for the sake of Texans’ future. Because without the primary care physician workforce, the potential achievements of Senate Bill 8 are just hollow promises.

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