After several months of researching the scarcity of primary care doctors who accept new Medicare patients, a local group has reached a surprising conclusion: The best place to find a doctor in Elko is ... in Battle Mountain.
About six months ago Great Basin College professor Larry Hyslop started investigating the issue after he reached retirement age and had trouble finding a doctor.
A friend had told him, “When you turn 65 in Elko, you become a second-class citizen.” This turned out to be true — at least when it comes to primary medical care — and he was determined to find out why. So he called for a public meeting and drew a standing-room-only crowd of 120 concerned residents.
The group is smaller now, but it meets again from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at the GBC social room and newcomers are welcome. Their goal is to find practical solutions for seniors who are having trouble finding care.
The factors that make Elko a virtual desert for primary physicians are many. It starts with the way doctor fees are determined, using formulas such as “relative value units.” Rural doctors generally get paid less, and reimbursed less for Medicare services than their big-city counterparts because of relatively low costs of providing service.
The key word is “generally,” because certain communities may be designated as underserved, and qualify for higher rates. According to Hyslop, doctors in Battle Mountain receive up to four times as much for Medicare services as doctors in Elko.
Hyslop said getting an appointment is fast and easy in the tiny town located two counties away. There are currently three doctors on hand, and not enough patients to keep them busy. The one-hour drive also is much closer than Twin Falls, Reno or Salt Lake City.
The group has published flyers informing local seniors about the situation.
Because of our demographics, Elko for the most part scores too high on the relative value scale to receive a similar designation. Hyslop said Elko is still a great place for seniors to get specialized services.
He said there are many other factors at play. For example, Nevada Health Centers operates under a different designation but it has the same difficulty as the hospital when it comes to recruiting physicians.
“They only have one doctor, and he’s leaving next month,” Hyslop said.
This is still the case two years after county commissioners voted to join Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital in subsidizing internal medicine residents from the University of Nevada.
The hospital also has offered subsidies to doctors for taking Medicare patients, he said, but limited to a two-year period.
Golden Health Clinic, which expanded in 2010, snapped up local doctors to serve the region’s mining employees. Ironically, those same workers have trouble finding a primary care doctor after reaching retirement age.
The advent of Obamacare has become part of the problem, too, Hyslop said. His group is not looking at political solutions, however, but more immediate ways to see that seniors are getting the care they need to avoid major illnesses and emergency room visits.
That’s a noble goal, and one we think Nevada’s congressional delegation should look into. Senior citizens should not be left out in the cold, simply because they live in one town instead of another.