Healthcare is a hot topic of debate around the world. Here in the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touts the success of The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, in a report released in August. The National Health Interview Survey, noted that just “9.2 percent of the population, or about 29 million people, had no coverage during the first three months of 2015. That’s down from 11.5 percent in 2014, 14.4 percent in 2013, and 16 percent back in 2010.”
While Obamacare was directed at ensuring people have health insurance, it also ensured access to care when it is needed. That is probably the most important thing for most of us. If we are sick or one of our family members falls ill, we want to be seen by qualified healthcare providers in a clean, safe environment. That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. But in North Carolina and in many other states, it is.
A report released in March by the Association of American Medical Colleges indicates that by 2025, a shortage of as many as 90,000 physicians will impact the United States. That is not good news.
Currently across the nation, people wait anywhere from seven to 66 days to schedule an appointment with a family physician. In Southern states, the average wait is around two weeks. That’s okay if you are just monitoring your health, but two weeks is a long time when you are sick. These wait times often force people without true emergencies into emergency rooms or quick care clinics that are popping up throughout the nation, including in local drug stores. This is not an ideal means of seeing to your health because there is no follow-up.
Here, in Cumberland County, where we have three hospitals and a plethora of physicians of every kind and variety, yet the lack of access to care is very real — particularly for those who are assigned to military clinics on Fort Bragg. With its flagship hospital, Womack Army Medical Center, routine healthcare at Fort Bragg is provided at family practice clinics that are spread across the post. Active duty personnel and their families are assigned to clinics based on their unit. Retirees and their families are then thrown into the mix.
During the troop build-up, many retirees who pay for their healthcare through Tricare were forced off the post and into the civilian sector. About two years ago, those folks were brought back into the fold at Fort Bragg as a cost-reducing measure. Most were satisfied with the change, but that was then.
As I have noted previously, I have never had anything but stellar care at Womack and its clinics. The care has never been the problem — it has always been getting to the care. TRICARE Standard guarantees certain access standards for care. For urgent care, appointment wait times cannot exceed 24 hours. For routine care, appointment wait times should not exceed seven days. For specialty referrals and wellness care, the standard is no more than four weeks. That puts the access to care in line with that of most in our region.
That would be great if that were the case. There is a shortage of providers on Fort Bragg. I will use myself as an example. Several weeks ago I was sick; running a fever, congested, throat-on-fire sick. I tried to make an appointment. I couldn’t. Why? Because a large number of providers at my clinic left, and I am an orphan in the system. I am assigned to a clinic but have no provider. So I called to see if I could get a same day appointment. No joy. The nurse I spoke with realized I was very sick and got me referred off post to a local FastMed. This past week, I needed another appointment. I called to book one. Again, because of my orphan status, appointments were not available. I called again. I was told I could not book an appointment until late December. This is October. That’s 12 weeks before I can attempt to make an appointment to be seen. This doesn’t even come close to meeting access to care standards.
I am not alone. My friends and co-workers face the same problem. In talking with the provider at FastMed, yes, I was referred off post again, I found that the FastMed office is seeing a tidal wave of military families who are in the same boat — even three- and four-week-old infants. Talking with another provider at the drug store, I heard the same thing.
The healthcare shortage is real in Cumberland County and on Fort Bragg; it is truly a sad state for healthcare and those who need it.