Congress may tackle problem of decreasing number of doctors

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Congress is seeking to remedy a national doctor shortage that could worsen after July 1, when physicians who treat Medicare patients get a 10 percent pay cut.

One-third of the nation's active doctors, or roughly 250,000, are 55 years or older and likely to retire in the next decade. Although the number of applicants to U.S. medical schools is increasing, it has not kept pace with the U.S. growing population. Plus, graduating medical students are facing rising debt loads, according to the Hartford Courant.

A growing number of lawmakers want to stop the upcoming pay cut, and Congress is considering the Physician Shortage Elimination Act, which would spend millions to provide more scholarships for medical students and expand residency training programs throughout the United States, the Courant reported.

“While the president's budget does not offer any ideas for addressing the physician-payment dilemma, it is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges that Congress faces,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

The Courant reported that the shortage already has resulted in a rapid increase in the number of nurse practitioners, and it has caused some doctors to delay their retirements.

State medical societies report that there could be an even larger doctor shortage by 2020, with the nation short of as many as 200,000 doctors, the Courant reported. And in the next decade, the nation's population is expected to grow by 24 percent and approximately 78 million baby boomers will enter the Medicare system.

“It is a significant problem, which we all must address at the federal, state and local levels,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who expressed concern that if the doctor shortage worsens, elderly Americans will have the greatest difficulty getting medical care.