NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Doctor Shortage Likely to Worsen With Health Law

August 1, 2012

Due to a number of factors both political and demographic, demand for health care in the United States is expected to increase dramatically over the next couple of decades. This has policymakers frenzied: while they sought to provide care for tens of millions of uninsured Americans, it now seems that supply may not be able to meet this demand. Specifically, the country is facing a national shortage of doctors, says the New York Times.

Due largely to the gradual retirement of the baby boomers, doctors are unable to serve an excessive flow of patients, many of whom are seniors that require more time and resources. This problem is further exacerbated by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which will further increase this demand and stretch doctors to their limit.

  • Researchers have estimated that even in the absence of the health care reform law, the shortage of doctors would have exceeded 100,000 by 2025.
  • When the ACA is included, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that in 2015 the country will have 62,900 fewer doctors than needed.
  • This figure is expected to double by 2025 when the retirement of the baby boomers and the implementation of the ACA are in full force.

Analysts have argued that a shortage of doctors nationwide is a difficult problem to recognize, because the costs are partially invisible. Specifically, longer wait times and greater use of emergency rooms instead of primary care physicians are relatively subtle impacts of a shortage.

Furthermore, the shortage is a difficult problem to fix, especially in the short term. It typically takes about a decade to train a doctor, meaning that supply will be hard-pressed to meet this dramatically increased demand in the near future.

This shortage has particularly important consequences for the poor, especially those who rely on Medicaid.

  • Across the country, fewer than half of primary care clinicians were accepting new Medicaid patients as of 2008.
  • Coupled with the overarching shortage, this means that the poor are more challenged than ever in accessing care.
  • This problem, too, will be made worse by the enactment of the ACA, which will enroll millions more of America's poor in the Medicaid system.

Source: Annie Lowrey and Robert Pear, "Doctor Shortage Likely to Worsen With Health Law," New York Times, July 28, 2012.

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