By Emily Crowe
CNJ staff writer
Eastern New Mexico is facing a shortage of doctors and dentists that one local health care provider says will only get worse.
The federal Health Resources and Services Administration has designated Curry County as a Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Area, meaning there are 3,500 or more people for every primary care doctor.
Seferino Montano, chief executive officer of La Casa Family Health Center clinics, said the doctor shortage has been ongoing for a long time, and recruiting physicians to rural areas has a unique set of challenges.
“Ever since the Affordable Care Act was passed, hospitals are beginning to recruit every provider they can get their hands on, including nurse practitioners and physician assistants,” he said. “It makes it very hard to compete when an organization with deep pockets pays more.”
“The only thing we can do to try to deal with the issue is to try to recruit mid-level practitioners,” Montano said.
By hiring nurse practitioners and physician assistants to work alongside primary care physicians, Montano hopes to more effectively balance La Casa’s load of patients.
“I see the problem getting worse and not better,” he said.
The doctor shortage is expected to worsen when newly insured Americans gain coverage under the new federal health care law next year. A Gallup poll ranked New Mexico ninth among states with the highest percentage of uninsured residents, making the pending coverage a potentially dire situation for New Mexicans.
Another reason for the shortage comes down to an aging population demanding comprehensive medical services.
The state’s Legislative Finance Committee reported state residents could encounter growing problems of access to medical care due to the potential need of 2,000 physicians, 3,000 registered nurses and as many as 800 dentists.
According to Roosevelt General Hospital Spokeswoman Amber Hamilton, the Portales hospital is aggressively recruiting primary care physicians to make up for shortfalls.
“We have three new providers joining our practice this fall,” she said. “As soon as we bring in a new provider, it takes a matter of weeks to build a practice and they are at capacity.”
Hamilton also said the hospital’s clinic has added extended hours to make doctors more accessible and to help take the burden off families who cannot make it to appointments during regular business hours.
“That was a big need that we had identified in the area of shortage,” she said.
In another bid to remedy the issue, the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque began offering a Bachelor of Arts to Doctor of Medicine degree in 2006. The program was developed to educate New Mexico students with a proclivity for medicine and place them in medically underserved communities throughout the state after they have completed their schooling.
New Mexico has also been identified by a Pew children’s dental report as having one of the country’s worst dentist shortages. According to the report, 24 percent of the state population is underserved when it comes to dental care.
The report also indicates that one-third of New Mexico’s dentists are nearing retirement age.
“It is hard to recruit dentists, also,” Montano said. “Though I would say in the past couple years it might have gotten a little easier.”
Montano said La Casa is having the same problems recruiting dentists to rural areas as they see with primary care physicians.
“If you come out of residency as a dentist and you have a choice of going to Portales or Albuquerque, I think you’re going to go to Albuquerque,” he said.
Advocacy group Health Action New Mexico sponsored a bill in the state legislature earlier this year that would license dental therapists to perform common dental procedures, such as exams, X-rays and fillings, and help lighten the patient load of rural dentists. More complex procedures would still be performed by a dentist.
The bill was tabled during March’s legislative session due to concerns about scope of practice and education.