Sen. Sanders Says Millions of People Can’t Find a Doctor. He’s Mostly Right.

by | Jul 31, 2023 | Health

“Tens of millions of Americans live in communities where they cannot find a doctor while others have to wait months to be seen.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in a July 19, 2023, press release

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has long been a champion of a government-sponsored “Medicare for All” health program to solve long-standing problems in the United States, where we pay much more for health care than people in other countries but are often sicker and have a shorter average life expectancy.

Still, he realizes his passion project has little chance in today’s political environment. “We are far from a majority in the Senate. We have no Republican support … and I’m not sure that I could get half of the Democrats on that bill,” Sanders said in recent remarks to community health advocates.

He has switched his focus to include, among other things, expanding the primary care workforce.

Sanders introduced legislation in July that would invest $100 billion over five years to expand community health centers and provide training for primary care doctors, nurses, dentists, and other health professionals.

“Tens of millions of Americans live in communities where they cannot find a doctor while others have to wait months to be seen,” he said in a press statement issued when the bill was introduced. He noted that this scenario not only leads to more human suffering and unnecessary deaths “but wastes tens of billions a year” because people who “could not access the primary care they need” often end up in emergency rooms and hospitals.

Is that true? Are there really tens of millions of Americans who can’t find a doctor? We decided to check it out.

Our first stop was the senator’s office to ask for the source of that statement. But no one answered our query.

Primary Care, by the Numbers

So we poked around on our own. For years, academic researchers and policy experts have debated and dissected the issues surrounding the potential scarcity of primary care in the United States. “Primary care desert” and “primary care health professional shortage area” are terms used to evaluate the extent of the problem through data — some of which offers an incomplete impression. Across the board, however, the numbers do suggest that this is an issue for many Americans.

The Association of American Medical Colleges projects a shortage of up to 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034, depending on variables like retirements and the number of new physicians entering the workforce.

How does that translate to people’s ability to find a doctor? The federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration publishes widely referenced data that compares the number of primary care physicians in an area to its population. For primary care, if the population-to-provider ratio is generally at least 3,500 to 1, it’s considered a “health professional shortage area.”

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Based on that measure, 100 million people in the United States live in a geographic area, are part of a targeted population, or are served by a health care facility where t …

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