Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at a press conference on raising the federal minimum wage outside the U.S. Capitol Building on May 4, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Sanders Announces 'Historic' Bipartisan Bill to Confront US Primary Care Crisis

"It is unacceptable that millions of Americans throughout our country do not have access to affordable, high-quality primary care and are unable to get the healthcare they need when they need it."

After weeks of negotiations, Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Republican Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas announced Thursday that they have reached an agreement on a bill to confront the United States' primary care crisis, which has left millions of people across the nation without access to critical healthcare.

Sanders, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said in a statement that the new legislation marks a "historic" effort "to expand primary care and to reduce the massive shortage of nurses and primary care doctors in America."

According to a report released earlier this year by the National Association of Community Health Centers, more than 100 million people in the U.S. face difficulty accessing primary care, which is often the initial point of contact for patients seeking care.

The U.S. underinvests in primary care compared to other wealthy nations, despite spending more on healthcare overall.

"It is unacceptable that millions of Americans throughout our country do not have access to affordable, high-quality primary care and are unable to get the healthcare they need when they need it," the Vermont senator said. "Every major medical organization understands that our investment in primary care is woefully inadequate. They understand that focusing on disease prevention and providing more Americans with a medical home instead of relying on expensive emergency rooms for primary care will not only save lives and human suffering, it will save money."

The new bipartisan legislation includes nearly $6 billion in mandatory annual funding for community health centers over the next three years, according to a summary of the measure. If Congress doesn't act by the end of the month, community health centers—which provide primary care to tens of millions of vulnerable Americans—will face steep funding cuts.

The Sanders-Marshall legislation also includes funding that would support an estimated 2,000 primary care physicians over the next decade.

Additionally, the measure would boost funding for the National Health Service Corps to support scholarships and debt relief for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

Recent data suggests the U.S. could see a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians over the next decade. Elisabeth Rosenthal of KFF Health News noted last week that "the percentage of U.S. doctors in adult primary care has been declining for years and is now about 25%—a tipping point beyond which many Americans won't be able to find a family doctor at all."

The nursing shortage is also severe and could soon get much worse. One study released earlier this year estimated that around 100,000 registered nurses in the U.S. left their jobs over the past two years—often due to pandemic-related stress—and more than 610,000 more intend to leave over the next four years.

Sanders and Marshall's legislation, which is set to be marked up in the Senate HELP Committee on September 21, would provide $1.2 billion in grants to state universities and community colleges with the goal of boosting the number of students enrolled in registered nursing programs.

Marshall, the top Republican on HELP's Subcommittee on Primary Health and Retirement Security, said in a statement that the new bill "recognizes and addresses the challenges our healthcare industry is facing, like the shortage of nurses and primary care doctors, and includes programs to bolster the workforce in a fiscally responsible way."

According to Sanders' office, the legislation would be "fully paid for by combating the enormous waste, fraud, and abuse in the healthcare system, making it easier for patients to access low-cost generic drugs, and holding pharmacy benefit managers accountable, among other provisions."

In remarks on the Senate floor on Thursday, Sanders noted that "in Vermont and all over this country, our people often have to wait months in order to get an appointment with a doctor and, in some cases, they have to travel very long distances to get the healthcare they need."

"It is literally insane," said Sanders, "that millions of Americans with nonemergency healthcare needs get their primary care in a hospital emergency room."

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