Health & Fitness

Will this bring more doctors to Merced County?

Patients awaiting their doctors appointments in the waiting room of a Livingston Community Health clinic in Livingston on Aug. 31, 2017.
Patients awaiting their doctors appointments in the waiting room of a Livingston Community Health clinic in Livingston on Aug. 31, 2017.

Assemblymember Adam Gray, D-Merced, recently introduced three pieces of legislation that could help bring more doctors to the Central Valley and make healthcare more accessible in Merced County.

One of the bills, AB-2202, proposes a way to fund the building of a long-awaited medical school at UC Merced, which health and elected officials have said could be the long-term solution to fix the doctor shortage issues in Merced County and surrounding areas.

“There’s a lack of physicians and medical professionals in the Valley,” Gray told the Sun-Star in a phone interview, saying the bill is an “important part to solving that problem.”

It’s uncertain where the funding would come from. One possibility could be taking $500 million from California’s general fund, according to Adam Capper, legislative director for Gray’s office.

The one-time investment would generate enough money to establish the medical school, Gray said.

“In a year when we expect a multibillion dollar surplus, now is the time for the state to invest in the creation of this critically needed medical school,” Gray said in a statement. “Locating a medical school in the heart of the region is an obvious solution we should have implemented a long time ago.”

Merced County has one of the lowest physician-to-patient ratios in the state with about 45 physicians per 100,000 residents in the county, according to data from the Merced County Department of Public Health.

“When you have a low physicians-to-patient ratio it’s hard to get into to see a doctor,” Gray said. “By creating a medical school and training students in the Valley and from the Valley,” doctors are more likely to stay and practice in the area.

Although regents gave UC Merced the green light to start work on the medical school in 2008, the plans have since halted. University officials have said in recent years the medical school may not be the solution to fixing the Valley’s doctor shortages.

“We thank Assemblymember Gray for his consistent support of UC Merced and his continued interest in a medical school,” said James Leonard, spokesperson for the university, in an emailed statement to the Sun-Star, noting the medical school would take “decades” of work and millions of dollars in “public and private funding.”

Leonard said the university is addressing doctor shortage issues through increasing residency positions that would “help keep students in the Valley through their final training and hopefully lead to more practicing physicians throughout the region.”

“This is something I’ve been working on my entire time in office and I will continue to work on it until I make it a reality,” Gray said.

Having a medical school at UC Merced would bring some benefit to Merced County but on a “limited basis,” said David Canton, health officer for the Merced County Department of Public Health.

“The problem would be for those students to get clinical experience,” Canton said in a phone interview Monday. “They would have to go elsewhere.”

Teaching hospitals and residency programs are needed to support a medical school, Canton said, “which makes a medical school in Merced problematic. What we really need is residency programs to draw people into the community.“

From an economic standpoint, a medical school at the university would be beneficial to the community, said Becky Nanyonjo-Kemp, director of the Merced County Department of Public Health. More people would relocate to the area and there would be a higher level of learning that would be “incredible” for the county, she added.

“There’s always a benefit with any medical school,” Nanyonjo-Kemp said. “It would achieve some of problem but not address the full scope of the problem.”

Another factor that’s been seen as an issue retaining doctors in Merced County is the high rate of Medi-Cal recipients, about 51 percent, that has historically reimbursed doctors lower than private insurances. A bill Gray is heading, AB-2203, could change that.

The bill calls for increasing Medi-Cal reimbursements to physicians. The low reimbursements rates are an issue because some physicians won’t accept Medi-Cal because the reimbursements aren’t enough, Gray said. If reimbursement rates are boosted the number of doctors will increase too, he added.

The reimbursement rates for Medi-Cal are so low private practices aren’t be able to sustain themselves only accepting Medi-Cal, Canton said.

“It is encouraging to at least see legislature take that up because it's been a long standing issue," Canton said.

The last bill Gray is pushing for, AB-2204, will extend the hours certain clinics can be open. Clinics that don’t have a full licensures can only be open 30 hours a week currently, but this bill would make it so they can be open up to 40 hours a week.

“This bill would be incredibly beneficial to clinics that are currently operating at 30 hours,” said Leslie McGowan, CEO of Livingston Community Health. “It allows for ten more hours of care to be delivered for patients.”

Patients “definitely” express the need to be seen after hours and on weekends, McGowan said, because regular 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours don’t always fit patient needs. AB-2204 not only helps patient access “but also helps on the operational side for our employees.”

All three bills can be heard in the committee as soon as March 15.

Monica Velez: 209-385-2486, @monicavelez21