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TheStreet Open House

Bills Would Address Expected Doctor Shortage

By JUDY LIN

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) â¿¿ A Democratic lawmaker introduced a package of bills Wednesday to address an expected doctor shortage as California prepares to insure millions of new patients under federal health care reforms.

Sen. Ed Hernandez of West Covina said his bills would expand services that can be provided by nurse practitioners, optometrists and pharmacists in order to help alleviate a shortage of primary care physicians, particularly in rural areas and inner cities. The bills are SB491, SB492 and SB493.

Hernandez, an optometrist, said his bills would allow nurse practitioners to see Medicaid and Medicare patients even if the doctors they work for do not.

Optometrists could check for high blood pressure, and pharmacists could order laboratory testing to detect diabetes.

"Here in the state of California, we have a capacity issue," he said. "We have a workforce shortage."

The California Medical Association opposes the bills, saying the move would create two classes of care, said spokeswoman Molly Weedn.

The group representing 35,000 doctors believes the state should focus on building more medical schools, adding residency slots and expanding programs that help doctors pay off student loans in exchange for working in underserved communities.

"Making sure that we're utilizing everybody the best is the answer, not expanding scope of practice and changing job descriptions and moving pieces around," Weedn said.

Starting in 2014, California will help millions of uninsured people gain access to health care in two key ways: Through a new insurance marketplace that will offer subsidies and tax credits to individuals and small business; and by expanding Medicaid, the federal-state health program for low-income people. The program is called Medi-Cal in California.

Hernandez, who unveiled his bills at a safety-net clinic in Sacramento, said the measures are not meant to replace doctors but to increase access to care for ethnic and poor communities as California's health care system braces for a huge influx.

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