Area care providers also looking to hire more physicians

CHAMPAIGN — Your throat hurts. Or your back aches.

You want to see a doctor, and soon.

But will the longer lines for medical care projected for next year when mandatory health coverage takes effect lengthen the wait much around here?

Executives at area's largest primary care provider, Carle Physician Group, say they don't think so.

"In other, large communities, metropolitan communities, it could have a big impact," says Mac Johnston, Carle's vice president of primary care services.

Not that there aren't primary care provider shortages in the area.

"I think everywhere, certainly in our market area, we see a shortage of primary care doctors," says Mike Brown, CEO of Presence Covenant Medical Center and Presence United Samaritans Medical Center.

Currently, less than one-third of the doctors at Christie Clinic and at Carle are primary care doctors.

At Christie, 31 of the 115 doctors and six of the 50 advance practice nurses and physician assistants work in primary care; at Carle, the primary care providers include 100 of the 350 doctors and 50 of the 220 advance practice providers, according to information supplied by the two systems.

Christie Clinic officials weren't available for an interview.

But Carle officials say they're recruiting physicians and advanced practice providers at all their locations throughout East Central Illinois but one to fill unmet demand.

The one location that is at capacity is Carle's Mahomet branch clinic, where physicians were recently added and the doctors are still building their practices, Johnston says.

To fill gaps, Carle plans to hire 130 new doctors over five years, 40 of whom will be primary care providers, Johnston says. So far this year, 37 new doctors have already been hired (10 in primary care) plus 41 new advance nurses and physician assistants, 13 of whom are for primary care.

Johnston says the five-year plan also calls for 20 additional advanced practice providers.

Dr. Bruce Wellman, CEO of Carle Physician Group, says those new providers aren't just for now — Carle is also planning to accommodate patient growth.

But he doesn't necessarily project a lot of that growth next year based on the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate requiring nearly everyone to buy health coverage starting Jan. 1, 2014.

Here are some reasons why:

— Wellman says he and fellow health care officials know local existing Medicaid patients already have "medical homes," the primary medical provider/facilities overseeing their care.

— Carle is already providing care through both its physician group and hospital to needy and uninsured patients. Charity care was given to 19,000 patients in 2012, Wellman says.

How the care of those patients will be covered next year — some through the state's Medicaid expansion, some through new insurance options — may change, but they will likely remain patients in Carle's system, he says.

Wellman says Carle has been successful in overcoming considerable national, state and regional doctor recruitment hurdles, but it takes more than being able to hire to put more primary care providers in place. It's also a matter of being able to add more clinic space so they've got room to see patients.

Another local provider preparing to fill more primary care patient need is Frances Nelson Health Center, a federally qualified health center in Champaign, which will be working to increase capacity and make room for new patients, says Nancy Greenwalt, CEO of the health center's parent organization, Promise Healthcare.

The health center recently added two full-time primary care providers and plans to add more, she says.

"With or without the Affordable Care Act, it will be a challenge to meet the need," Greenwalt says in an email. "Champaign County has as many as 70,000 people living below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level and over 24,000 people with no health insurance."

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