Coronavirus already changing medical care in the U.S.

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic, which has fueled widespread speculation about potential long-term changes to American life, is already causing one important shift: It has accelerated moves to restructure how basic medical care is provided and paid for in the U.S.

Doctor groups and insurers say in just the last month, there’s been a dramatic surge of interest in large-scale changes in the way primary care doctors are paid, an overhaul that policy experts have envisioned for decades.

“I’m a little amazed,” said Shawn Martin, vice president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “The sense of urgency and financial instability brought on by the crisis has accelerated ideas that we have been noodling on for years.”

Driving the urgency is a dramatic drop-off in patient visits to primary care practices over the last month as the coronavirus spread and patients stayed away from the doctor’s office, fearful of getting ill.

Primary care doctors have seen a big uptick in telehealth visits — a move widely hailed by public health experts. However, the fees for these services are often lower than for office visits.

Many physician practices have seen in-person patient visits drop 50% or even 75%. That has left physicians struggling to stay afloat and forced growing numbers to consider laying off staff or even closing their doors.

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