Friday, May 30, 2003

Fund addresses doctor gap

Insurer puts in first $100,000

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield said it will put up the first $100,000 of a potential $250,000 fund to "start doing some things" about the low supply of specialist physicians in Cincinnati.

Earlier this month, a report showed that the Tristate doctor supply is "significantly" below average in 14 of 33 medical specialties compared to other Midwest cities. Among the experts in short supply: surgeons who treat heart disease, lung cancer and colorectal cancer.

• May 20: Study finds gaps in health care
• May 21: Key specialist groups lacking
While some have called for further studies to delve into why the Tristate lags, Anthem officials say there's enough evidence to act now on some aspects.

For example, the money could be used to expand efforts to recruit doctors and to make it easier to set up practices here, said Paul Beckman, Anthem's vice president of health care management for southern Ohio.

"There is some general agreement now on some opportunities for improvement. Hopefully, this will be the first $100,000 and others might also contribute to start doing some things," Beckman said.

Anthem's challenge grant is drawing cautious praise. Some say more discussion is needed about who would get the money. Others question whether $250,000 is enough to make a difference.

"I think it's great that there is some enthusiasm behind doing something about this issue," said Lynn Olman, president of the Greater Cincinnati Health Council.

Olman is a staff coordinator for the Health Improvement Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati, a collection of groups interested in health concerns, which co-sponsored the recent study with the Cincinnati Business Committee.

Anthem would like to send the money to the Health Improvement Collaborative because it is "the ideal forum in which to begin to develop solutions," Beckman said.

However, Olman said accepting the money would require a special meeting of its 23 trustees, who weren't scheduled to meet until September. More discussion also is needed about the collaborative's role in the overall health care debate, she said.

For example, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune said this week that the county should set up a task force to address issues raised by the report. But Olman said it might make more sense to get the county involved with the collaborative rather than having multiple task forces.

Meanwhile, some question whether hiring more physician recruiters will make much difference.

The Academy of Medicine of Cincinnati found no success in hiring a physician recruiter more than a year ago. After spending more than $50,000, the effort attracted a doctor to Dearborn County in Indiana, but not a single doctor to "Cincinnati proper," said Russell Dean, the academy's executive director.

The new proposal would be different because the recruiter would do more than traditional head-hunting, Beckman said. Instead a new recruiter would act like a medical chamber of commerce, selling the city image and working behind the scenes to pave the way for a doctor to come to town. Support tasks could include helping locate office space, arranging hospital privileges and plugging new doctors into local health plan networks.

But doctors say the recruiting problems in Cincinnati are more about money than red tape.

"Anthem's proposal is a good start. But it isn't the weather, or the lousy football team, or the length of time spent as a junior partner in the practice," Dean said. "It's what the practice can offer in terms of compensation."

Employers and insurers continue to dispute physician allegations that the supply problems stem from years of poor compensation.

More studies are coming.


Previous stories:
May 20: Study finds gaps in health care
May 21: Key specialist groups lacking

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