L.A. Care Health Plan is committing $31M to recruit primary care doctors

Primary care doctors are supposedly at the backbone of efforts to curb runaway health spending in the U.S. by preventing patients from developing serious—and costly—health concerns.

But with primary care physicians in short supply and projections showing the problem will only worsen, one health insurer announced plans to throw millions of dollars into preventing further shortages of doctors at the safety net facilities that treat its members.

The publicly operated L.A. Care Health Plan announced Monday it will commit $31 million to recruit doctors, putting money toward overcoming the financial hurdles that keep physicians from choosing smaller clinics over larger health system players.

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CEO John Baackes told FierceHealthcare the funding will come from the company's reserves and go toward three grant programs including medical school scholarships, medical school loan repayments and a program to help with physician salary subsidies, sign-on bonuses and relocation costs.

"We're investing in the future," Baackes said. "We have a real, demonstrable shortage of primary care physicians in Los Angeles County that are in places where Medi-Cal beneficiaries and other vulnerable populations live."

A University of California, San Francisco study projected California will have a shortfall of nearly 9,000 primary care physicians by 2030. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates the U.S. could see a shortfall of between 14,800 and 49,300 primary care physicians by 2030.

L.A. Care is a $6.37 billion independent, public agency also known as the Local Initiative Health Authority of Los Angeles County which began operations as a licensed health plan in 1997. It has more than 2 million members, specializing in serving vulnerable populations and has multiple health coverage programs including a managed care plan and a health plan for home care workers. 

As a publicly operated health plan, Baackes said the company necessarily does business differently from most insurers. But, he said, the company is pursuing the move because it expects the plan to pay off it in the long run in the form of a healthier population.

"We're not an investor-owned insurer, and part of our mission is to provide access to quality health care for vulnerable populations and to support the safety net of providers to take care of those people," Baackes said. "If we don't have enough providers in the community, in the safety net, we can't meet our first mission around providing access."

He said he expects to begin seeing an impact within the next year but would not say how long the insurer expects it would take for the investment to pay for itself.  "We think we would see the benefit of people getting their care through a primary care physician, establishing a continuity of care that doesn't occur when they go to emergency rooms and get it delivered in episodic visits, that this would be a far better way and less expensive ultimately than having them receive their care in the most expensive way possible."

L.A. Care said it's already gotten started. On Monday morning, they also announced grants for eight full medical school scholarships to students who've expressed interest in working with the underserved and who will be attending either the University of California Los Angeles or Charles Drew University.