The April 1st issue of AFP includes a Graham Center Policy One-Pager that uses historical data to project the effect of the 2010 Primary Care Residency Expansion Program (PCRE). By its conclusion in 2015, the PCRE program will have funded an additional 900 residency trainees in family medicine, general internal medicine, and general pediatrics above the current cap on Medicare-supported residency positions. Based on historical trends, though, only 39 percent of internists will end up practicing primary care, compared to 51 percent of pediatricians and 92 percent of family physicians. As a result, only about two-thirds of these residents are likely to enter the primary care workforce. Of course, 600 new primary care physicians are better than none, but at an estimated $100,000 per year per resident, this well-intentioned federal program will also spend $90 million to train additional internal medicine and pediatric subspecialists that are already in plentiful supply.
In addition to modest programs like PCRE, big ideas are needed to transform U.S. health care to a patient-centered system, grounded in primary care, that delivers the best possible health outcomes for all. AFP assistant medical editor Corey Fogleman, MD and Thomas Gates, MD propose several in a recent article in the Journal of Lancaster General Hospital, including:
1) Making medical school free, and providing residency training stipends only to graduates who choose primary care programs
2) Direct primary care: "eliminating the middle-man of third-party insurance"
3) Single payer systems providing universal insurance coverage on the state level
Of these three big ideas, direct primary care appears to face the fewest political and logistical obstacles. Drs. Fogleman and Gates observe:
Advocates of this approach point out that insurance is meant for large unexpected expenses, while expenses for primary care are relatively modest and predictable. It makes little sense to pay for these through an insurance model, any more than it would make sense to buy auto insurance to protect from the cost of an oil change or new tires. Instead, patients in direct primary care contract directly with a primary care provider for access to a broad range of office-based primary care services, in return for a monthly or annual retainer fee.
Unlike “concierge medicine,” the fee is modest (usually on the order of $500-$1000 per year), and can complement high-deductible or catastrophic insurance (which would cover large and unexpected expenses like hospitalization). An element of competition safeguards consumers: practices that don’t deliver quality and accessible primary care will quickly lose patients.
A collection of articles about direct primary care and membership-based practices is available on the Family Practice Management website.