Deal on raising doctor payments is right medicine

The worsening problem of physician shortages in the Rochester region and upstate finally is prompting solutions.

Gov. Spitzer has a good plan to help new doctors pay their schooling debts if they open their practices in underserved areas. And locally, the region’s largest provider and largest insurer, with the vital intervention of the Rochester Business Alliance, have worked out an important deal to raise physician reimbursement rates.

It’s been known for years that these low rates — the amount insurers pay doctors — put Rochester at a serious disadvantage when competing with other parts of the country. And the problem will only deepen as doctors move into retirement. One out of every three doctors locally is 55 or older.

The deal between Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and Strong Health, with the RBA providing a push, moves the average payment rate to or near the national average. That may not be enough to compete with the sweetheart deals offered doctors elsewhere, but then many of those regions don’t have an academic medical center of the caliber of the University of Rochester.

It’s important that the physician corps be replenished, with specialists and, in particular, primary care doctors. This is a step toward that goal.

There’s no free lunch for something like this, of course, and in the past, higher rates for providers were picked up by insurance ratepayers. The RBA correctly emphasized the need to keep the expense out of the premiums, and Excellus and Strong, for the short term at least, have agreed to internal cost-cutting.

This is an excellent example of collaboration that serves individual interests and the public good. UR needs to attract doctors if its ambitious expansion plans are to materialize. Excellus is hurt by an exodus of physicians. And business doesn’t want higher premiums. They found common ground, and the community should benefit as a result.

Turning around the physician shortage will take years of commitment. But this is a good start.
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