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Pioneer Editorial: Shortage of family docs concerning

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Monday's health care forum saw nearly 400 people gather in Bemidji to give U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson their idea of what health care reform should -- or should not -- be. Ideas were far-ranging, from keeping government out of health care to running health care more like government-run Medicare or Veterans Administration care.

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But a linchpin to providing every American with quality health care is the doctor. And the fear is quickly becoming that there aren't enough family physicians today, let alone if 47 million more Americans now without insurance are eventually covered.

A report in Tuesday's USA Today noted that the number of U.S. medical school students going into primary care dropped 51.8 percent since 1997. Concerns grow that as baby boomers begin to retire, there won't be enough doctors to care for them.

Dr. Brian Livermore, a recently retired Bemidji family practitioner, told Peterson Monday he worried about that too. "During my career, I've seen lots of change in health care that has been called reform, but one thing's constant, and that is the baby that gets thrown out every time the bathwater is changed is primary care." He asked that while the skyscraper of health care is being fixed, that the crumbling basement isn't forgotten.

It also concerns Rep. Peterson. "If we open up access to whatever number there is that is not covered ... I'm being told and I believe we don't have the primary care physicians to take care of those people."

Unfortunately, Peterson says he doesn't see things changing much. Part of it is a recruitment problem to rural areas that can't pay docs as much as those who specialize and stay in the metro area. USA Today said a primary care doctor can make $140,000 to $200,000 a year while those in neurosurgery make $530,000 or more.

"There have been some attempts to try to forgive loans for people who enter primary care," Peterson said. "But the reality is a lot of people are going into specialties because they get a lot more money and they don't have to work in the emergency room or extra hours. I'm very concerned about that. That's a place where this could blow up."

It could be a reason health care reform won't work, whether the government is involved or not, he said. That question will have to be answered before the Detroit Lakes Democrat votes for the bill, he added.

It's also a question we'd like to see answered, as it affects us even now. Patients to local facilities endure long waits to see family doctors, waits that could grow longer if more rural practitioners can't be recruited and if more patients enter the system.

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