Put health care above politics with rural doctor program

When it come to training doctors, a “resident” is a more literal term than you might think. Statistics show that more than half of doctors end up practicing within 100 miles of where they do their residency.

In that pattern the Obama administration saw a way to address the shortage of primary care doctors in rural and underserved areas. It created the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education Program under which medical students could serve their three-year residency at a rural health center rather than an urban hospital. Currently, 59 teaching health centers are training more than 740 residents in 27 states and the District of Columbia. Demand for the rural residency slots are high – 100 applications for each slot – and most graduates of the program say they’ll practice in rural and underserved areas. North Carolina has two centers.

But Republicans in Congress, intent on undoing all things Obama, are now balking at renewing funding for the program. The program faced a Sept. 30 deadline for funding to be renewed, but a three-month extension appears likely. But the extension does little to save the program. It needs a stable commitment from Congress. Medical students who can’t tell whether a program will be funded for the length of their residencies obviously won’t apply to the program.

Gregory K. Griggs, executive vice president of the North Carolina Academy of Family Physicians in Raleigh, said most members of Congress are sympathetic to the aim of the program, but are wary of its ties to Obama and the Affordable Care Act, which originally helped fund the program.

“Once a program is favored by one party or the other, it gets caught up in politics,” he said. “But this is one case where we need to put health care first.”

Republicans, many of them representing rural areas, should support this smart and effective way to get more doctors into rural and underserved areas. Politics should not get in the way.

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