Two bills aimed at addressing the state’s shortage of nurses and doctors have passed their first major hurdle.
Currently, Arizona is among the worst in the nation for its ratio of primary care physicians to residents, according to a study by the University of Arizona.
Additionally, the state has not provided funding to the Graduate Medical Education Program for nearly 10 years, which advocates say is contributing to the shortage. The program provides funds to hospitals that provide education and training, such as residencies or internships.
Senate Bill 1354, proposed by Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, would appropriate $50 million from the state general fund to finance several initiatives, including additional funds for GME, to combat what advocates are calling a crisis.
Senate Bill 1524, also proposed by Carter, would have the Arizona Board of Regents create a working group and pilot program to address the state’s nursing shortage.
Both bills have won bipartisan approval in the Senate and await consideration by the House, though it is likely they will only receive consideration by that chamber as part of the state budget and not as stand-alone bills.
“Pursuing a budget item is always challenging,” said Greg Vigdor, president and CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association. “I believe funding to address the physician shortage will make it into the budget, because there is growing awareness of the issue at the Capitol.”
What would the money do?
The $50 million in SB1354 is broken up between several different initiatives.
The largest chunk of money, $20 million, would go to provide GME funding to hospitals or health centers that are in critical areas that have been hit hardest by the doctor shortage.
The Health Resources and Services Administration estimates that Arizona needs an additional 563 doctors in order to properly address the physician shortage in the state – a shortage that will only worsen, as nearly one-quarter of physicians currently in Arizona plan to retire in the next five years, according to the UofA study.
An additional 1,941 doctors are expected to be needed by 2030 to be able to adequately care for Arizona’s growing population, according to workforce projections by the Robert Graham Center.
The next biggest appropriation would be to the University of Arizona’s Health Science Center, which would receive $11 million. The center is one of the leading biomedical research centers in the state.
The Arizona Department of Health Services would receive $10 million for a grant program for postsecondary nursing education assistance and would provide health care operators assistance with implementing a program that would hire retired physicians and nurses to give oversight for new graduates of medical and nursing programs.
The remaining $9 million would go to two programs aimed at alleviating loans taken on by nursing and medical students.
All of it is an attempt to lure and keep more nursing and medical talent that may see better options and incentives in other states.
Rural communities in Arizona seem to be feeling the effect of the shortage more so than other areas of the state.
Yuma and Santa Cruz counties have 100 percent of their populations living in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA), according to research by the University of Arizona’s Rural Health center.
Cochise County isn’t far behind, with 98 percent living within a designated HPSA area.
HPSAs are defined as places that have a shortage of primary care, dental care or mental health providers when compared to the population needs.
Many of the major HPSAs in Arizona lay within the Native American reservations or in small rural communities.
Carter told the Arizona Mirror that these two bills are only part of how she hopes the legislature will tackle the issue.
Another bill, Senate Bill 1089, aims to expand what insurance will cover in regards to telemedicine, which Carter said would help rural communities by allowing doctors in Phoenix or Tucson to treat patients in other parts of the state.
That bill has passed the Senate, as well, and is awaiting consideration by the House.