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Alle-Kiski hospitals, clinics in need of family doctors as number of insured rises

| Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 10:26 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dis
Terri Trimble, interim executive director for the New Kensington Community Health Clinic, is examined by Stephanee Sheffield, a certified registered nurse practitioner at the clinic in downtown New Kensington on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. Trimble, a part-time employee, currently pays for COBRA health insurance and will be signing up in the new federal health exchange that takes effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

As a deluge of uninsured residents are expected to start signing up for government-subsidized health care, local hospitals and clinics are expecting the family doctor shortage to grow worse.

Terri Trimble, interim executive director of the Community Health Clinic Inc. in New Kensington, will be among the throng of those newly covered under the Affordable Care Act, which has been called Obamacare.

She is temporarily filling the top administrative post at the free clinic while paying about $620 under the COBRA insurance program for continued health coverage under her former employer's plan.

“I'm hoping that I can identify a less-expensive option until I find permanent employment,” Trimble said. “I believe in being insured and being able to afford my personal obligations while seeking permanent employment.”

If the first day of enrollment for health care under the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday is any indication, as government computers handling new claims crashed, expect some crowds at the doctor's office come January when the insurance takes effect.

In fact, Trimble is trying to hire two workers, who must be certified by the federal government, to help the clinic's patients — many of whom don't have health care insurance — to shop for a government-subsidized health care plan.

“We have been seeing low-income individuals who have been uninsured for decades,” Trimble said, “and we are very hopeful that our patients can now obtain health care coverage.”

Most of the 3,000 patients who access the clinic annually are the working poor, who find it difficult to pay for traditional health care, Trimble said.

“The people who have been avoiding health care because of a lack of funds will be eager to access care as an insured individual,” she said. So will people with pre-existing conditions who may not have been able to buy coverage.

Trimble sees the shortage of family physicians, which has already been an issue nationally, just get worse as more people, now with health care coverage start shopping for a family doctor.

She says she is finding it difficult to hire a new doctor for the clinic, even given the higher number of family doctors found close to cities such as Pittsburgh.

Dr. Lawrence Ferlan, who has had a family practice in Tarentum for 50 years, said, “I think there will be a shortage of primary care physicians unless we get a rapid influx of new ones.

“Hold on to your present family doctor because the landscape is changing rapidly,” Ferlan said.

Ferlan's practice is affiliated with the Allegheny Health Network, which, he said, is “working diligently to get more primary care physicians in the area.”

According to Dan Laurent, spokesman for Allegheny Health Network, it expects to see a “significant growing demand in the region for access to primary care physicians and family medicine practitioners as the ACA takes hold, and our physician organization is actively recruiting new physicians to meet this need.”

Ditto for Allegheny Health Networks' competitor, UPMC, and its doctors out of UPMC St. Margaret hospital in Aspinwall.

Dr. Steven Shapiro, UPMC's chief medical and scientific officer, has said that the health system is “adding primary care doctors as quickly as we can.”

The Butler Health System, which includes Butler Memorial Hospital and four outpatient treatment centers, will continue to add primary care doctors and specialists, according to Connie Downs, spokeswoman for the system.

Downs said that it is too early to say how much of an influx of patients is expected at the Butler Health System.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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