Partisan fights in Congress stall panel on primary-health-care shortage

By Amy Goldstein
The Washington Post, May 13, 2011

When the government set out to help 32 million more Americans gain health insurance, Congress and the Obama administration acknowledged that steering more people into coverage had a dark underside: If it works, it will aggravate a shortage of family doctors, internists and other kinds of primary care.

So Page 519 of the sprawling 2010 law to overhaul the health-care system creates an influential commission to guide the country in matching the supply of health-care workers with the need. But in the eight months since its members were named, the commission has been unable to start any work.

The group cannot convene, converse or hire staff because $3 million that it needs for its initial year has been blocked by two partisan wars on Capitol Hill — strife over the federal budget and Republicans’ disdain for the health-care changes that Democrats muscled into law 14 months ago.

“We’ve been sort of hamstrung,” said Fitzhugh Mullan, a professor of medicine and health policy at George Washington University who is one of the 15 commission members appointed by the Government Accountability Office. The panel’s only activity so far, Mullan said, was a single conference call during which members were told they could not lobby members of Congress for funds or accept money to operate from foundations or anywhere else.

The National Health Care Workforce Commission is intended as an ongoing brain trust to focus new energy on solving an old problem that will become increasingly severe. The law says the new commission will analyze primary-care shortages and propose innovations for the government — and medical schools — to help produce the doctors and other health workers the nation needs.

Proponents of the workforce commission say they were surprised that Republicans have balked, because there has, in the past, been little ideological schism over the need to bolster the supply of primary care — doctors, nurses, physicians assistants and others.

Republicans and Democrats agree with the health policy community that we desperately need to reinforce our primary care infrastructure. The National Health Care Workforce Commission that would propose innovations to help build primary care requires a mere $3 million to establish operations, but the Republicans have blocked this authorization. Do they expect us to simply rely on the private sector to meet this need? How is that working for us so far?