Direct Primary Care is a Promising Solution to Alaska’s Health Care Shortage

This article written by Ryan McKee originally appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on May 9, 2021.

Alaskans suffer from a health care shortage in most of our boroughs. It is not that we have a shortage of providers, though. We rank among the top 10 states in the country for most doctors per capita.

A large part of the problem is that onerous regulations on providers make it more difficult for them to treat patients in need. But now, lawmakers are proposing a potential solution to this problem, one that would allow doctors to spend more of their time with patients and less time filling out paperwork.

The Alaska Legislature is considering a bill, HB 176, that would legally define “direct health care agreements,” also known as direct primary care, as distinct from an insurance product and therefore exempt from Alaska’s insurance laws and regulations.

Make no mistake: This bit of legalese would be game-changing for health care and those who depend on it in our far-flung state.

HB 176 would give health care providers, including primary and specialty care providers, the legal certainty they need to see Alaskans through direct primary care, an arrangement in which patients would pay a fixed, monthly fee — on average, $25 to $85 — in exchange for round-the-clock access to their doctors. Think of it as a gym membership for health care.

Under the current system, many physicians hesitate to offer DPC because they worry it will be regulated under the state’s insurance laws creating extra layers of bureaucracy to deal with, along with the inevitable higher costs. HB 176 would fix that.

In turn, the benefits DPC could offer to doctors and patients would be enormous.

America’s doctors spend inordinate time — half their working hours — navigating the cumbersome third-party insurance reimbursement system, time that results in 40 percent higher overhead expenses, and which could have been spent treating patients. This process also contributes significantly to physician burnout, causing skilled medical professionals to leave the practice.

DPC could relieve some of this hemorrhaging. Their practices spend significantly less time on often mind-numbing paperwork, allowing them to focus more of their attention on the patients in their care.

Patients, too, could benefit from increased access to DPC.

One study found that DPC patients visited the emergency room 41% less often, admitted to hospitals 20% less, and needed 13% fewer health care services overall, compared with patients who use traditional fee-for-service primary care.

DPC also increases health care affordability by improving patient outcomes. After a North Carolina county offered their public employees an option to receive care through DPC, total medical costs fell 23%, out-of-pocket spending decreased a whopping 46%, and prescription drug spending fell 36%.

The average patient was able to save $3,120.

What’s more, under DPC arrangements, providers typically spend 30 to 60 minutes with each patient, compared to just 12 to 15 minutes for fee-for-service relationships.

For these and other reasons, more than 30 states have passed bills ensuring that consumers have access to DPC.

Removing barriers to DPC in Alaska could be exactly what we need to expand access to quality, affordable health care.

Lawmakers should pass HB 176. Not only would it give patients better access to better care, but it would also free up more of our doctors to provide it. This is our chance to help them do it.

Ryan McKee is state director of Americans for Prosperity-Alaska.