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What Surge? Nation’s Primary Care System Holding Up Well So Far Under Obamacare

WebMD News from Kaiser Health News

By Phil Galewitz

Mon, May 12 2014

The headlines were ominous: Good luck finding a doctor under Obamacare. Not enough doctors for newly insured. Obamacare, doctor shortage could crash health system.

Despite these dire predictions, the nation’s primary care system is handling the increased number of insured patients without major problems so far, according to interviews with community health centers, large physician practices and insurers nationwide.

Five months into the biggest expansion of health coverage in 50 years — with about 13 million people enrolled in private insurance and Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — there are few reports of patients facing major delays getting care, say officials from more than two dozen health centers and multi-group practices, as well as insurers and physician groups in nine big states.

There are some exceptions, particularly in parts of Colorado, Kentucky and Washington state, which had some of the biggest gains in coverage.

HealthPoint, a network of nine community health centers and six dental clinics southeast of Seattle, is turning away about 150 people a week although it had added two new facilities and expanded a third in anticipation of the surge.

The centers have seen nearly 7,000 new patients this year — a 10 percent increase — most of them newly covered by Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for the poor that expanded in Washington and 25 other states.

“It’s been incredibly stressful,” said Lisa Yohalem, the system’s chief strategy and development officer.

But most of the health centers and large physician groups contacted said they were prepared for new patients because they had added space and providers. A few cautioned that the full impact could be bigger because of the late surge of enrollees buying private plans in late March and April, whose coverage would just be taking effect in May, and the large numbers still awaiting Medicaid cards. Besides Colorado, Kentucky and Washington state, other sampled states were California, Connecticut. New York, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania.

Metro Community Provider Network, a community health center in Denver, has handled 2,000 new patients so far this year, thanks in part to a new walk-in clinic with evening hours that opened in January and was paid for by the Affordable Care Act.

Henry Brown, 55, who signed up for Medicaid at the health center in January, said he’s had no problem getting appointments to treat his high blood pressure and arranging for foot surgery.

“It’s been a blessing for me,” said Brown, an ordained minister.

So what about the predictions about newly insured patients facing delays getting care?

“It was overblown,” said Sherry Glied, dean of New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and a former top official in the Health and Human Services Department in the Obama administration.

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