With President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act just over a year old, local health care professionals say that investment in primary care, a focus on illness prevention and the creation of stronger alliances between doctors and hospitals are key to survival under the landmark health care overhaul.
These points were made Monday night during a forum in Santa Rosa, where local health care experts discussed how the Affordable Care Act will affect private and public health care in Sonoma County.
The measure will soon result in health care coverage for 45,000 local residents, county Supervisor Mike McGuire told the forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Sonoma County and the Sonoma County Health Services Department.
"We need to ensure that our hospitals and clinics have the capacity to treat all those people," McGuire told the audience of about 100 people at the Santa Rosa City Council chambers.
The county must also find ways to strengthen the safety net for 20,000 local residents who will still lack health care coverage, McGuire said.
Residents will also see significant changes to Medicare this year, said Julie Bennett, a community outreach specialist for Sonoma County Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program, or HICAP.
These include a 50 percent discount for brand name prescription drugs for beneficiaries in the Medicare Part D coverage gap, or donut hole; a yearly wellness exam; and the Medicare Extra Help program that lowers prescription drug co-pays for low-income seniors.
Doctors are going to have to become less competitive and integrate themselves into larger health care models known as "medical homes," which focus on primary care, prevention and better management of illnesses, predicted Walt Mills, a Kaiser Permanente family medicine doctor and a member of Sonoma County Health Action, a panel of medical experts working toward improving local health care infrastructure.
"Health care more than ever is a team sport," he said. "We're learning a new way of providing health care."
For doctors who work in such integrated health care models, the burnout rate is lower, he said.
Nancy Oswald, executive director of the Redwood Community Health Coalition of local health centers, said the kinds of provider partnerships that will flourish under the Affordable Care Act are already under way in Sonoma County. The coalition health centers — including Alliance Medical Center, West County Health Centers and Santa Rosa Community Health Centers — are expected to provide a great deal of primary care services to the newly insured.
Oswald said that Kaiser invests significant resources in local health center infrastructure. St. Joseph Health System-Sonoma County, which runs Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and Petaluma Valley Hospital, has a number of community health programs aimed at the uninsured and underinsured, and many health center patients use Sutter Health-affiliated specialty doctors.