Study after study for more than a decade has shown the United States is facing a serious physician shortage – a shortage that poses a risk to the health of the population. Just this year, a study by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicted that the country will face a shortage of up to 121,000 physicians by 2030.

California, the most populous state, is especially vulnerable, with a study out of the University of California San Francisco predicting a shortfall of nearly 9,000 primary care providers by 2030. The shortage is certain to hit the safety net the hardest – those providers who by mandate or mission offer access to care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. These providers care for a substantial share of uninsured, Medi- Cal beneficiaries and other vulnerable patients.

The Council on Graduate Medical Association, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), recommends at least 60 primary care doctors for every 100,000 people, and closer to 80 would be better. However, some counties in California have fewer than 40. In L.A. County, the number is 56. Certain areas of the county are already facing a severe shortage. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in South Los Angeles recently released a physician needs assessment showing a primary care physician shortfall of 500. This region also has a shortfall of 700 specialists.

Since it can take up to 10 years to train a physician, there is no time to waste. This is why L.A. Care Health Plan, the largest publicly-operated health plan in the country, has committed up to $31 million to address the brewing physician shortage crisis through a long-term initiative called Elevating the Safety Net. The initiative is based on guiding principles that include promoting equity and reducing health disparities, with hopes of increasing the number of providers that can speak the languages and understand the cultures of L.A. County’s diverse communities.

“This is an investment we have to make,” said John Baackes, L.A. Care CEO. “Our members are going to need care next year, the year after, and ten years from now, so we must support and help expand the safety net of providers who care for them.”

Launched this month, Elevating the Safety Net initially involves three grant programs – medical school scholarships, medical school loan repayments, and physician recruitment. L.A. Care has already awarded eight four-year medical school scholarships – four to students at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and four to students at Charles Drew University (CDU).

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