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Obamacare deals blow to one-doctor medicine

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Dr. Doug Moir fills out a patient’s medical history on the computer after her visit. Moir has less time for patients since electronic health record software became federally mandated. Peggy Peattie • U-T

Despite the predictions of fortune tellers in politics and think tanks, we won’t know for years whether the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, will ultimately leave people sicker or healthier, richer or poorer.

Yet already the law, coming on top of previous legislation, is speeding the demise of an American small-business institution; the one-doctor medical practice.

Their problems began in the late 1990s. Government cost controls steadily eroded revenues while simultaneously boosting costs, by stacking on requirements for paperwork and accounting.

Some doctors adapted by figuring out ways to see more patients. Others just accepted falling incomes.

Now federal health care policy has delivered a major blow to productivity.

In a slow-motion version of the problems that crippled online insurance “exchanges” for months, doctors who see patients under Medicare and Medi-Cal programs have been forced by the phase-in of a 2009 federal “stimulus” law to install expensive, complex software systems that sharply reduce time for patients.

U-T Graphic: Medicare payments to doctors — Aaron Atencio

U-T Graphic: Medicare payments to doctors — Aaron Atencio

For many doctors, it’s the final straw. Surveys suggest that older physicians are retiring in high numbers. Younger ones are closing practices and taking jobs with integrated health systems.

Early this month, I spent a few hours with my friends Dr. Doug Moir, a heart specialist in Escondido, and his wife, Margaret, who runs the business side of their one-doc practice (which also includes a nurse and assistant).

Both Moirs are pillars of the Escondido community. Just thinking about their volunteer schedule wears me out.

Over a 40-year career, Doug has helped thousands of people, both inside and outside his practice. At a robust 72, he’d love to keep going, but he increasingly questions how long he can afford it.

“This year we’re looking at putting money into the business to keep it going,” he said.

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