Guest Column

COVID-19 has shed light on the importance of making sure that patients have access to the health care they need. The Oregon Legislature is taking steps to expand the availability of health care that should help address this ongoing challenge.

Most of us have recognized the very real threat of overwhelming health care capacity during COVID-19, and just how harmful that could be. However, we have been suffering from a physician shortage for years. Even in normal times, too many have difficulties receiving primary care.

After COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror—these challenges will remain. Currently, part of every county in Oregon is considered a health care shortage area. These are primarily rural and low income urban areas.

People living in health care shortage areas across the state receive worse health care. Long wait times and choosing to delay care worsens health outcomes, having a long-term effect on Oregonians’ health.

The Oregon Legislature has a chance to change that with a simple bill that expands access to care without compromising patient safety.

HB 3036 is currently in the House Health Care Committee. It would allow physician assistants to practice with more independence from physicians. This independence will give PAs the flexibility to provide care in health care shortage areas where finding a physician to collaborate with is difficult.

How will this bill work? PAs perform many of the same tasks as physicians that provide primary care for patients. They can diagnose illnesses, conduct physicals and prescribe medication. PAs are an important component of health care. While they don’t have the lengthy requirements that physicians do, they undergo rigorous training and education and do 2,000 hours of clinical rotations.

PAs can’t do everything physicians are trained to do. HB 3036 harnesses that skill and allows PAs to work to their full potential. The current law requires PAs to enter into a collaborative agreement with a physician or physician group. This bill would expand a PA’s options, allowing them to also sign an agreement with another PA with sufficient years of experience.

HB 3036 does not expand what PAs are allowed to do outside of their training. Instead, it allows them to continue to provide the same type of care they currently provide. The only change is making it easier.

Many health care shortage areas lack physicians, so allowing PAs to collaborate with an experienced PA will make it easier to practice in currently underserved locations. Helping them receive care more easily is a win for patients.

Even though it expands access, it does so safely, without risking patients’ health. Oregon will still ensure that PAs are practicing with supervision, so that they provide only the care that they have the training for.

Oregon joins a growing number of states looking to expand PA autonomy. North Dakota and Utah have recently passed laws that allow PAs to practice with full independence as a way to solve their health care shortages. Oregon’s HB 3036 does not go as far, but it is in the same spirit. It’s an attempt to expand access for patients by using the professionals we already have.

Health care shortages have plagued Oregon for too long, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Giving PAs more independence in collaborative agreements isn’t the cure for all ills, but it will expand access to care by making it easier for PAs to practice in health care shortage areas. Ensuring that all patients in Oregon have access to health care is important, and right now we have the chance to make it a reality.

Conor Norris is a research analyst and Edward Timmons is director of the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation. Timmons is also professor of economics at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania.

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