Doctors’ ‘Mercy Mission’ Highlights California’s Pediatric Specialist Shortage
A team of doctors from Orange County, Calif., is embarking on a "mercy mission" to Redding, Calif., to perform a "marathon session of surgeries" for 40 children, the Los Angeles Times reports. The number of licensed doctors and surgeons has dropped 15% in California over the past 10 years, and the shortage has been "particularly acute" among pediatric specialties. The cause of the shortage, according to state doctors, lies with low reimbursement rates from Medicaid -- known as Medi-Cal -- and other government programs designed to aid poor or chronically ill children. Faced with inadequate reimbursements and "too many cases," doctors say thay have little option but to turn many patients away. Small communities in particular have been "hard hit" by the physician shortage, or "brain drain", as populations in those areas are often too small to support specialty practices, the Times reports. In Redding, for example, there is a "stark absence of specialists for ear, nose and throat procedures so commonly needed among the young." The town has only two ENTs, both of whom are "overwhelmed" with cases and often work 100-hour weeks. In the past, Redding patients have turned to the Sacramento-based University of California-Davis Medical Center for specialty pediatric care, but the larger hospital is now "facing financial difficulties of its own" and can no longer take these children. The team of doctors from Orange County will be followed by a second visit in February by a team from UC-Davis.
Ann Murphy, the medical director as Shasta Community Health Center, which treats poor patients in the Redding area, said the "long term" solution to the reimbursement problem "rests with the Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis (D)." In response to the publicity around the mercy mission to Redding, local GOP lawmakers have proposed increasing Medi-Cal payments by 25%. But some legislators say California has paid enough, as payments for children with chronic or catastrophic diseases rose about 58% this year and 5% last year. Dean Cermano, the administrative chief at the Shasta Center, said, "If we can't fix the system for everyone, let's at least fix it for the kids. This is a chronic problem, and children are suffering because of it." (Bailey/Marquis Los Angeles Times, 12/15).