Will a shortage of primary care doctors undermine the health bill?

So, if more of us get heath coverage under the legislation that President Obama recently signed into law, will there be enough doctors to meet our needs?

According to the American College of Physicians, the Philadelphia based group representing 129,000 internists, too few medical school graduates are going into primary care residency programs. The college said the National Resident Matching Program reported 2,722 entered an internal medicine residency program in 2009. And while that represented a slight increase from the previous three years, it was a 30 percent drop from 1985 when 3,884 medical school graduates went into internal medicine programs.

“Because it takes a minimum of three years of residency after four years of medical school to train an internist, it is critical to begin making careers in internal medicine attractive to young physicians," said Steven Weinberger, a senior vice president at the college. "As America's aging population increases and more people gain access to affordable coverage, the demand for general internists and other primary care doctors will drastically outpace the primary care physician supply."

In 2008, there were 272,435 doctors actively providing primary care services in the United States, or 89.6 per 100,000 people, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges’ 2009 State Physician Workforce Data Book. New Jersey and Pennsylvania ranked 13th and 14th in per capita primary care doctors respectively with 99.8 per 100,000 residents and 99.3 per 100,000. A group of state medical schools in New Jersey recently predicted a larger than expected shortage in doctors because fewer young doctors are choosing to stay after completing their training.

In addition to boosting payments for preventative care, the health bill increases funding of community health centers to expand access to primary care, particularly for people in underserved areas such as inner city neighborhoods and rural communities. The health care bill contains $11 billion to expand health centers over five years starting on Oct. 1. That includes $9.5 billion to expand capacity to serve 20 million new patients and $1.5 billion to expand existing health centers. The bill also includes $1.5 billion over five years for the National Health Services Corps to add 15,000 primary care providers for underserved communities.