Primary care: More physicians needed in Whatcom County

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 5, 2014 

Healthplanfinder go live at  Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement

Lisa Tenney of Bellingham fills out paperwork for health care coverage through the Washington Healthplanfinder with help from Maureen Kane on Tuesday, Oct. 1, Kane is the Access Services manager at Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement in Bellingham.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

A 2011 report commissioned by PeaceHealth found a shortage of primary care physicians in Whatcom County as the Affordable Care Act took effect.

Because of that gap, people new to the world of insured health care should expect longer-than-normal wait times as they enter the medical system, says Elya Moore, deputy director of the Whatcom Alliance for Healthcare Access. Patients also might be more likely to be treated by a nurse or nurse practitioner, instead of a physician, for minor health problems, she says.

To smooth the transition, people with new insurance should act quickly to schedule a wellness exam. That will help establish a relationship with a care provider, and will put the patient's basic health information on record, which can prove vital if the person suffers a medical emergency later.

Through February, nearly 21,000 people in Whatcom County had joined Medicaid through the nationwide campaign for enrollment, either as new Medicaid clients or as re-enrolled ones. Just over 5,000 county residents enrolled for coverage from private insurers.

To deal with the surge of new patients, local medical facilities are busy trying to hire more primary care doctors and nurse practitioners.

"The problem is, everybody else in the U.S. is doing the same thing," Moore says.

While Whatcom County offers competitive salaries and natural beauty, it will be a challenge finding enough primary care physicians to serve the local population, she says.

One reason is the low pay for primary care doctors compared to physicians who specialize.

"It's the most thankless of the professions in terms of compensation," Moore says. "At the end of the day, we will have to start paying primary care physicians more. They need to be paid for the good work that they do."

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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