Legislation aimed at dealing with a shortage of primary care physicians in Oklahoma was signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Mary Fallin.
She signed House Bill 3058, which contains the Oklahoma Hospital Residency Training Program Act, and Senate Bill 1280, which provides $3.08 million to create residency programs at hospitals in rural, underserved areas.
“It will help us retain physicians in those most-needed areas of the state,” Fallin said. “Currently, there are 64 of Oklahoma's 77 counties that are experiencing health care professional shortages.”
HB 3058 allows the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tulsa and the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine in Oklahoma City to establish and run new residency programs in medically underserved areas.
OSU President Burns Hargis thanked legislators and the governor for passing the legislation.
“This is a critical, acute need for the state of Oklahoma,” he said. “We simply must get more primary care physicians into the rural areas and other underserved areas in our cities. Both OU and OSU are focused on these areas.
“We're going to see a lot more boots on the ground and that's what we need because the primary care doctor is basically the front door to the medical system,” Hargis said. “This is a tremendous advance. Only the government of the state of Oklahoma could have started it. You can't get the money for residency programs from the federal government until you've established them for a period of years.”
The governor, flanked by University of Oklahoma President David Boren, Higher Education Chancellor Glen Johnson and Hargis, also signed SB 1969, which transfers about $140 million remaining in a special research fund to the state higher education budget to match a backlog of privately funded endowed chairs. Many chairs support similar high-tech research projects.
The endowed chair program was started about 20 years ago; dollars provided by private donors are matched 100 percent by the state. The state is behind about $280 million in matching those pledges.
“It helps attract top-quality faculty for our universities and our colleges in very important fields ... like science and math and engineering,” Fallin said. “The transfer also reflects our state's commitment to higher education and the long-term success of the endowed chairs program which will help strengthen our universities.”
Most of the endowed chairs are earmarked at OU and OSU, but Johnson said it has a statewide impact.
“Twenty-two of our 25 colleges and universities have money in this endowed chair backlog,” he said. “So indeed this is a statewide program where every institution and the students from those institutions will receive the benefits.”
The Economic Development Generating Excellence fund, formed in 2007 to fund research companies, had about $160 million in its account. Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, chairman of the House of Representatives Appropriations and Budget Committee, said about $12 million is set aside for projects funded earlier. An estimated $7.2 million in interest earnings will be transferred into a quick-action closing fund that the governor may give to businesses or industries looking to locate or expand in Oklahoma; legislators approved the fund last year, but didn't fund it.
Howard Barnett, president of OSU-Tulsa and OSU Center for Health Sciences, said details are still being worked out how the residency program will be implemented. Residency programs run three and four years.
It will take about a year for the program to start, he said. Residency programs have to get accredited; the residency program is for hospitals that don't have existing residency programs, so it's likely most of the residencies will be at rural hospitals.
It's estimated the program will provide funding for 40 residencies a year, he said. Each residency is expected to cost about $75,000.
“We think that's about four or five hospitals a year,” he said.
Barnett said young doctors tend to stay within 100 miles of the area where they completed their residency program; at OSU, 80 percent of the medical students who attend medical school and then serve a residency in Oklahoma stay in the state.
Fallin said the rural doctor shortage is affecting the state's health. A 2011 study put Oklahoma at 48, two spots lower than the previous year's rankings; limited availability of primary care doctors is a key factor.
Barnett said Oklahoma consistently rates among the highest in the nation in health problems and among the lowest in doctors per capita. Oklahoma ranks last in the ratio of primary care doctors per population.
Boren said his school is putting emphasis on recruiting medical students interested in working in rural Oklahoma or in underserved parts of Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
People living in rural or underserved areas are at risk of living 17 fewer years than those in areas where basic and specialty medical care is readily available, he said.