SAN DIEGO -- Ted Mazer is one of the few ear, nose and throat specialists in this region who treat low-income people on Medicaid, so many of his patients travel long distances to see him.
But now, as California's Medicaid program is preparing for a major expansion under President Barack Obama's health care law, Dr. Mazer says he cannot accept additional patients under the government insurance program for a simple reason: It does not pay enough.
"It's a bad situation that is likely to be made worse," he said.
His view is shared by many doctors around the country. Medicaid for years has struggled with a shortage of doctors willing to accept its low reimbursement rates and red tape, forcing many patients to wait for care, particularly from specialists like Dr. Mazer.
Yet in just five weeks, millions of additional Americans will be covered by the program, many of them older people with an array of health problems. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that 9 million people will gain coverage through Medicaid next year alone. In many of the 26 states expanding the program, the newly eligible have been flocking to sign up.
Community clinics, which typically provide primary care but not specialty care, have expanded and hired more medical staff members to meet the anticipated wave of new patients. And managed-care companies are recruiting more doctors, nurse practitioners and other professionals into their networks, sometimes offering higher pay if they improve care while keeping costs down. But it is far from clear that the demand can be met, experts say.
In California, with the nation's largest Medicaid population, many doctors say they are already overwhelmed and unable to take on more low-income patients. Hector Flores, a primary care doctor in East Los Angeles whose practice has 26,000 patients, more than a third of whom are on Medicaid, said he could accommodate an additional 1,000 Medicaid patients at most.
"There could easily be 10,000 patients looking for us, and we're just not going to be able to serve them," said Dr. Flores, who is also chairman of the family medicine department at White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles.
California officials say they are confident that access will not be an issue. But the state is expecting to add as many as 2 million people to its Medicaid rolls over the next two years -- far more than any other state. They will be joining more than 7 million people who are already in the program here. One million of the newly eligible will probably be enrolled by July 2014, said Mari Cantwell, an official with the state's Department of Health Care Services.
On top of that, only about 57 percent of doctors in California accept new Medicaid patients, according to a study published last year in the journal Health Affairs -- the second-lowest rate in the nation after New Jersey. Payment rates for Medicaid -- known in California as Medi-Cal -- are also low here compared with most states, and are being cut by an additional 10 percent in some cases just as the expansion begins.
"The symbolism is horrible," said Lisa Folberg, a vice president of the California Medical Association.
The health care law seeks to diminish any access problem by allowing for a two-year increase in the Medicaid payment rate for primary care doctors, set to expire at the end of 2014. The average increase is 73 percent, bringing Medicaid rates to the level of Medicare rates for these doctors.
But states have been slow to put the pay increase into effect, experts say, and because of the delay and the fact that the increase is temporary, fewer doctors than hoped have joined the ranks of those accepting Medicaid patients.
"There's been a lot of confusion and a really slow rollout," Ms. Folberg said, "which unfortunately mitigated some of the positive effects."
Adding to the expansion of the Medicaid rolls is a phenomenon that Medicaid experts are calling the "woodwork effect," in which people who had been eligible for Medicaid even before the Affordable Care act are enrolling now because they have learned about the program through publicity about the new law. As a result, Medicaid rolls are growing even in states like Florida and Texas that are not expanding the program under the law.