Washington bill would give doctors incentive to treat low-income and uninsured patients

OLYMPIA -- A bill introduced in the state Legislature this week aims to give doctors a new kind of incentive for treating low-income and uninsured patients.

Senate Bill 5825 was introduced by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, in partnership with three other Republicans and six Demo-crats, and would offer licensed medical providers the option to earn continuing education credits for treating low-income patients on Medicaid or providing free care to uninsured patients.

"There is a need to serve the underserved, and this bill really seeks to help those people that are uninsured or underinsured as well as providers," Brown told the Herald.

Medical providers would be allowed to earn continuing education credit for every hour spent providing direct care for patients and can satisfy up to 25 percent of their continuing education requirements by treating patients.

Physicians in Washington are required to complete 200 hours of continuing education every four years to renew their licenses, according to the state Department of Health.

Brown said doctors still will be required to complete classroom hours and other kinds of continuing education activities, which was a concern for some lawmakers when she started talking about the bill.

"This just allows them to get up to 25 percent of their credits from hands-on work," she said. "It combines the practical component with the educational classroom component."

She said the idea was born from conversations with providers in the Tri-Cities and wondering how to encourage more doctors to care for patients who are uninsured or on Medicaid, the state medical program for low-income people.

"This seemed to be a good solution on both sides," she said.

It also may be another way to tackle the issue of uninsured patients seeking care in emergency rooms -- an issue that has been identified as a priority by local health advocates.

There are almost 39,000 uninsured adults under age 65 living in Benton and Franklin counties, and health advocates have said that people who lack health insurance are less likely to have a family doctor or seek preventive care that could help avoid more costly problems as medical conditions go untreated until patients are seriously ill.

If the bill becomes law, it also could provide an incentive for more local doctors to volunteer at places like Grace Clinic, a volunteer-run Kennewick clinic that provides medical, dental, counseling and pharmacy services to uninsured, low-income people -- many of whom have jobs but no benefits -- and gets almost 7,000 patient visits each year.

Marc Brault, the clinic's board president, said anything that encourages medical providers to offer their time would be a benefit.

"We always need more volunteers," he said. "There's always more demand than there is capacity."

Brown said she's trying to get a hearing in the Senate Health Care Committee, but is racing against a deadline today for policy bills to be passed out of committees.

"I am hopeful," she said. "I'm doing as much as I can in the three weeks I've been here. ... If nothing else, at least we've begun the discussions. It is important to get discussions like this going on a bipartisan level."