Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Rural Texas still badly short of doctors; budget cuts reversed boost in loan-repayment program

Doctor shortages in rural areas concern many states. Texas, which has the nation's largest rural population, more than 3 million, has largely failed to attract doctors to its rural areas, leaving many communities without doctors and forcing residents to travel long distances for services, reports Alex Wukman for FME News Service, a joint venture of the Killeen Daily Herald and the Temple Daily Telegram.

Of the state's 254 counties, 140 have at least one area considered medically under-served, but while the state's total number of doctors has grown, most of those doctors are going to urban areas, Wukman writes.  Rita Kelley, department head of Bell County Indigent Health Services, told Wukman, “Doctors go where the money is. We’re trying to keep doctors in Texas, but we have trouble getting them to go to rural areas.” (Texas Department of Rural Affairs graphic: Primary care physicians in rural Texas. The 23 red counties have none; dark pink have one; light pink are other rural counties)

In 2009, the Legislature souped up the physician-education loan-repayment program in an attempt to bring 900 doctors to underserved areas, Wukman writes. The more generous program has fallen well short of its goal of 900 doctors, with only 267 having taken advantage of the program, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

"In fiscal year 2010, the program attracted only 63 physicians, not the 225 advertised, but the cuts in 2011 is a historic record," Wukman writes. "In 2011, Texas faced a massive budget shortfall, estimated at more than $20 billion, which prompted spending cuts." Stephen Brotherton, president of the Texas Medical Association, told Wukman, “It’s a great program, but it’s only going to work as well as it’s funded, and the Legislature gutted the funding in 2011.” The Legislature did restore part of the funding in its last session. (Read more)

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