PAA recent vote by the Retirement Systems of Alabama/Public Education Employees’ Health Insurance Plan (PEEHIP) Board of Control adds physician assistants (PAs) as providers to Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) insurance policies. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has designated the majority of Alabama counties as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA), meaning there is one physician or less per 3,500 residents. The PEEHIP vote will increase access to quality medical care for those in medically underserved areas.

“Until this goes into effect, if you need medical attention you must drive to a location that has a physician no matter how serious your illness or injury,” said Stephanie McGilvray, MMSc, PA-C, an assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences. “People need to know that physician assistants practice medicine with supervision from licensed physicians, and they can provide treatment for 80 percent of the problems that a physician would treat.”

The argument against the new policy is that adding more providers will increase the cost of funding the program. McGilvray, president of the Alabama Society of Physician Assistants in 2010, disagrees saying PA insurance claims are usually reimbursed at a lesser amount; therefore, this is actually a cost savings.

A 2008 article published in the October edition of Health Services Research entitled Impact of Physician Assistant Care on Office Visit Resource Use in the United States shows that not only would the cost not increase, but it would likely decrease. Researchers from Duke University Medical Center, the University of North Carolina, and Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., found “patients for whom PAs provided a substantive portion of care used about 16 percent fewer office-based visits per year than patients cared for by physicians only.”

“More sick people might increase cost, but certainly more providers will not,” said McGilvray. “The only thing that will increase because of this policy is the patient’s chances of being nearer to quality healthcare.”

Physician assistants are expected to be added as preferred providers to BCBS PEEHIP effective Oct. 1, 2013.