HW: Shortage-area designation starts paying dividends

Family physician Dr. Jennifer Stroh is “thrilled” to have recently moved to Grand Junction and health officials hope that others like her will follow.

After four years of going through the brainstorming and application process, Mesa County was designated a Health Professional Shortage Area in January, said Greg Rajnowski, planner with the Mesa County Health Department.

The designation, determined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, means any primary care provider practicing or committed to practicing in Mesa County is eligible for money to repay student loans.

Local health care professionals said the designation is an important recruiting tool for primary care providers.

Primary care providers are defined federally as people who practice internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics/gynecology.

“Let’s hope we can reap the benefits this provides,” Rajnowski said.

There is no guarantee the designation will alleviate Mesa County’s shortage in primary care providers. The providers must want to move to Mesa County and work here. But the allure of scholarship or grant money to help pay off student loans is an attractive option for young physicians, Stroh said.

Stroh, 34, graduated from the University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kansas City with $200,000 in debt.

“That’s like a second mortgage,” she said.

Stroh joined Western Medical Associates in February and plans to apply for student loan forgiveness this year. The shortage area designation expires in November 2013.

Health care professionals noticed a shortage in primary care providers several years ago. At that same time, St. Mary’s Hospital did a study to pinpoint exactly how many additional primary care providers were needed to meet the demands of the area.

The study found that the county was 25 primary care providers short of meeting service area needs, said Dr. Roger Shenkel, executive director of Primary Care Partners and a former family physician.

In 2006, Rajnowski stepped up his efforts to apply for a shortage area designation. The process took several years. He surveyed every primary care physician practicing in Mesa County at the time. During the application process, some physicians retired, moved or cut back hours, forcing Rajnowski to adjust the application. He worked with all hospitals in the area during the application process.

Rajnowski stopped short of saying he was the most beloved man who walked through hospital doors during the application process. But he was close.

“It definitely was a community-wide project,” Rajnowski said. “I personally experienced what it’s like to have the entire medical community focus on a common cause.”

Counties are given shortage area designation number between one and 25 that signifying how dire the need for primary care providers are, said Cherith Chapman of the Colorado Rural Health Center. One is the lowest.

Mesa County received a score of 14.

Primary care providers moving to areas with a designation of 14 or higher are eligible for scholarship money. On the flipside, primary care providers practicing in any designated shortage area are eligible for grant money.

“Where would you look?” Shenkel asked, pretending to be a young health care provider faced with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. “This (HPSA designation) is really good.”

The national shortage of primary care providers is of interest to Dr. David West, president of Health System Solutions and a part-time, local family physician. He recently was appointed to the Colorado Health Care Community Board where he reviews applications from health care professionals who want student loans repaid.

He was the director of St. Mary’s residency program for eight years. Nearly 100 of the 160 graduates who have come through that program decided to practice family medicine in Western Colorado.

Although helpful, one residency program is not enough to address provider shortages, West said.

The designation is welcome news to primary care providers such as West.

“Existing physicians, although new physicians represent competition, are stretched thin in Western Colorado,” West said. “Never in my 30-year career here have I worried about more family doctors coming here.”


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