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In the midst of a severe shortage of family physicians on the North Coast and across the country, the Petaluma Health Center has just been given a tool that will help it recruit more top young doctors.

The federal government recently revised its “health professional shortage area” rating for the Petaluma Health Center, giving it a “19,” the most severe shortage rating for any health center in Sonoma County. The designation makes young doctors and other medical professionals who are willing to work at the health center eligible for federal funds, specialized training and — most importantly — loan forgiveness.

Loan forgiveness could mean the elimination of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in crippling medical school debt, said Pedro Toledo, chief administrative officer of Petaluma Health Center. The rating allows the health center to recruit from the National Health Service Corps’ scholarship program.

“The federal government will cover the loans for these individuals if they come to work here,” Toledo said.

Finding new doctors has been difficult for the Petaluma Health Center and other Sonoma County health clinics as they compete with medical giants like Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Medical Group of the Redwoods and Annadel Medical Group. At the same time, demand for doctors is growing as the number of local residents with health insurance has been boosted by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

According to a 2015 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States faces a shortage of between 46,000 and 90,000 doctors within the next 10 years. The shortage is a result of the nation’s changing demographics, with a growing senior population, and recent changes to the health care system, such as the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

In Sonoma County alone, tens of thousands of residents have become newly insured through the Covered California health exchange program and the expansion of Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program.

Last year, the Petaluma Health Center recently added the Rohnert Park/Cotati area to its service region with the opening of a new health center on State Farm Drive, on the second floor of Kaiser Permanente’s medical offices in Rohnert Park. The health center also operates clinics at Casa Grande and San Antonio high schools, as well as a small clinic for homeless people at the Mary Isaak Center shelter, in Petaluma.

In total, the Petaluma Health Center serves about 27,000 people and its patient roster is growing because of the opening of the new Rohnert Park clinic, Toledo said. The health center has an immediate need to hire about five doctors for the Rohnert Park site. Overall, for all its sites, the health center needs to recruit another five nurse practitioners, as well as new mental health and dental clinic staff.

“The reason we haven’t grown faster is because of the physician shortage,” Toledo said. “It’s very difficult to recruit primary care doctors at this point.”

Toledo said health care reform has increased the number of people insured, which in turn has led to more hiring and an extremely competitive job market that pits larger health care providers such as Sutter Health and Kaiser against the region’s smaller clinics, which provide primarily care for uninsured and low-income residents on Medi-Cal and Medicare.

Last year, Sutter Medical Group of the Redwoods, which is affiliated with Sutter Health, added five family practice physicians and one internal medicine doctor, according to Sutter spokeswoman Lisa Amador.

Annadel Medical Group, which is affiliated with St. Joseph Health, hired six primary care providers, including two in Petaluma and one in Rohnert Park, said St. Joseph spokeswoman Vanessa deGier. Annadel also added more than a dozen specialists who will support operations at both Santa Rosa Memorial and Petaluma Valley hospitals, which are both operated by St. Joseph.

DeGier said an additional six medical providers, four of whom are primary care providers, will start work at Annadel by May 1. Since 2013, Annadel Medical Group has grown from 59 physicians to 130 providers in Sonoma County.

Naomi Fuchs, CEO of the Santa Rosa Community Health Centers, said all of the area’s health centers are having difficulty recruiting primary care providers. The Santa Rosa-based system of health centers, the largest in Sonoma County, is currently recruiting 10 medical providers and will seek an additional 10 to 15 over the next two years.

“Keeping up with the large influx of patients since the (Affordable Care Act) means that we are all trying to hire more providers,” she said in an email. “Health care providers in a community health center are mission driven — they want to care for the underserved; they want to eliminate health disparities in our communities. It is a very special calling.”

The need for more family doctors to care for the county’s low-income population is illustrated by the phenomenal growth in the number of county residents now covered by Medi-Cal. There were more than 107,000  county residents covered by Medi-Cal in late 2015, up from 72,000  residents insured by the program in 2013, said Karen Fies, assistant director of the county human services department.

“If you do the math, out of a population of almost 500,000 people, 21 or 22 percent on average are on Medi-Cal,” Fies said.

Eliot Enriquez, Petaluma Health Center program manager, said the expansion into Rohnert Park has made the health center responsible for a larger share of Sonoma County’s Medi-Cal population.

“The Petaluma Health Center doesn’t just serve one city, we serve an entire region of Sonoma County,” Enriquez said, adding that the ability to eliminate a young recruit’s medical school loans “would give us one leg up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.