The authors examine the potential impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) on a large medical education program in the Northwest United States that builds the primary care workforce for its largely rural region. The 42-year-old Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho (WWAMI) program, hosted by the University of Washington School of Medicine, is one of the nation’s most successful models for rural health training. The program has expanded training and retention of primary care health professionals for the region through medical school education, graduate medical education, a physician assistant training program, and support for practicing health professionals.
The ACA and resulting accountable care organizations (ACOs) present potential challenges for rural settings and health training programs like WWAMI that focus on building the health workforce for rural and underserved populations. As more Americans acquire health coverage, more health professionals will be needed, especially in primary care. Rural locations may face increased competition for these professionals. Medical schools are expanding their positions to meet the need, but limits on graduate medical education expansion may result in a bottleneck, with insufficient residency positions for graduating students. The development of ACOs may further challenge building a rural workforce by limiting training opportunities for health professionals because of competing demands and concerns about cost, efficiency, and safety associated with training. Medical education programs like WWAMI will need to increase efforts to train primary care physicians and increase their advocacy for student programs and additional graduate medical education for rural constituents.