Rural healthcare bills cause confusion; money headed to the panhandle

Dr. Heath Cotter
Dr. Heath Cotter
Representative Warren Chisum
Representative Warren Chisum

By Sarah Seeley

Amarillo, Texas - Two recent rural doctor bills that made their way to Governor Perry's desk have caused a little confusion as to which one he signed and which he vetoed.

The bill which passed will use a tobacco tax loophole to create a medical school loan repayment fund for new doctors who chose to practice in rural primary care shortage areas.

"We can take that revenue at apply it to rural healthcare," said Amarillo Representative John Smithee. "That bill passed and has been signed by the governor. That's good law and I think that's really going help our area."

A local resident says the new legislation is going to make it easier for him to practice family medicine in rural West Texas.

Doctor Heath Cotter grew up in a small town in West Texas.

He says it was the rural family doctors there that led him into medicine in the first place.

"They just did full spectrum family medicine and that really appealed to me," said Cotter.  "I kind of would like to do a little bit of everything."

"I'm kind of a jack of all trades so that's the one thing where you can still do a little bit of everything."

In a recent interview with NewsChannel 10, Representative Warren Chisum says he's proud a bill to help bring primary care doctors to rural communities will take effect in September.

"We provided for doctors in rural areas, which is a big deal," said Chisum.  "One hundred and fourteen counties in Texas under Federal guidelines are short of physicians and we have 254 counties. One hundred and fourteen of ours fit in to that medically under-served area."

Hansford county is one of those health professional shortage areas.

Doctor Cotter says after his last year of medical school he will practice family medicine in Spearman.

"I did my rural rotations as a med student and just absolutely fell in love with it," said Cotter.

Other area Health Professional Shortage Areas:

  • Dallam County; short 2 primary care doctors
  • Deaf Smith County; short 2 primary care doctors
  • Hansford County; short 1 primary care doctor
  • Hutchinson County; short 2 primary care doctors
  • Moore County; short 1 primary care doctor
  • Parmer County; short 1 primary care doctor
  • Potter County; short 4 primary care doctors
  • Swisher County; short 1 primary care doctor

*Based on county population (population to practitioner ratio of 2,000:1); from The Department of Health and Human Services.

The new bill will pay back new doctors like Cotter in four yearly installments of up $160,000.

"I would have gone back and done that without the reimbursement from the state," said Cotter.  "But it sure doesn't hurt because most of us wind up with 150 to $160,000 worth of debt from medical school."

Governor Perry vetoed a lesser-known rural doctor bill that would have also benefited the panhandle.

It would allow those small districts to employ physicians because they are having a very hard time getting physicians into those communities any other way.

Right now rural hospital districts are not allowed to recruit and hire doctors.

The proposal would have put a doctor on the payroll for any hospital in a medically under-served county of less than 50,000 people.