Eighteen months ago, Ferdinand moved from New York to Heflin to open Cleburne County Family and Sports Medicine. “I was looking to move from the city,” Ferdinand said Monday. “For me, it was getting away from the traffic and cold weather.”
Ferdinand’s move is not typical. Some health industry experts say more Alabama physicians are choosing lucrative practices in urban areas, while many rural doctors are aging and facing retirement – resulting in a void of quality rural health care. However, one local lawmaker wants to help reverse that trend and keep more physicians like Ferdinand in rural areas through a new tax credit bill.
Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, recently introduced a bill that will increase state income tax credits for physicians who practice in rural areas.
“I hope it will help attract and keep some rural physicians in rural areas,” Dial said.
Alabama law grants rural physicians a $5,000 income tax credit for five years. Dial’s bill would allow rural physicians a tax credit of $6,000 for six years starting in 2014. The bill goes further, increasing the credit for qualifying rural physicians in 2015 to $7,000 for seven years and in 2016 to $8,000 for eight years. According to the bill, no person who qualifies will be able to move from one qualified year to another. For example, a doctor who’s eligible for the credit in 2014 must stay with the $6,000 rate for the remaining five years. That doctor cannot jump to the $7,000 credit starting in 2015.
Dial said the increase years for the tax credit will help encourage more physicians to stay in rural areas once they move there. Dial said the five years’ worth of tax credits does not provide enough time for a rural doctor to become invested in the community. “But with this they can become part of the community … their kids will be in schools … they’ll have a vested interest in the area so they’ll tend to stay longer,” Dial said.
Ferdinand, who practices mainly general family medicine but also some care for young athletes, said he thought the bill could help lure more physicians to rural areas.
“I don’t see how it would hurt,” he said.
Dale Quinney, executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, said the current tax credit is popular among many physicians, so expanding it should have some success.
“This really is welcome news,” Quinney said.
Quinney said the main problem in regard to rural health in Alabama is convincing physicians to consider practicing in rural areas. Of the state’s 67 counties, 55 are considered completely rural, Quinney said.
“More are going into specialties rather than primary care and those are more in urban areas,” Quinney said.
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of Alabama’s 1.81 million residents, more than 941,000 are estimated to be underserved for primary medical care.
Quinney added that the many rural doctors in the state are nearing retirement, which compounds the problem. Dr. John Wheat, professor of community and rural medicine in the college of community health sciences at the University of Alabama, agrees.
“It’s going to get worse,” Wheat said. “The doctors out there, many are getting older and are about to retire.”
To Wheat, the bill is a good idea, but will likely only work in retaining rural physicians, not enticing them to move to rural areas.
“Unless we raise them and train them in rural areas, they’re not going to come here,” Wheat said. “It’s mainly a cultural issue … money is a part of it, but it’s just not enough to buy the heart and soul of an urban kid.”
Wheat said the rural medical scholars program at the University of Alabama is designed to break that cultural barrier and show students the benefits of practicing in rural areas.
“About 60 percent of our graduates are practicing in rural areas,” Wheat said.
David McCormack, CEO of Regional Medical Center, said the bill would be helpful since enticing doctors to practice in the rural parts of Calhoun County and the even more rural surrounding counties is difficult. RMC purchased the Roanoke Rural Health Clinic in 2011 and the hospital in Jacksonville in December to expand its influence in the five-county region.
“Getting people to even talk to us is difficult … but once you get them here, they tend to stay,” McCormack said. “So anything we do to entice them and make that opportunity to bring them is worth a try.”
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.