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Doctors brace for Obamacare patients

A doctor uses a stethoscope on a patient. 

Tomorrow many of us will be recovering from tonight, watching football, perhaps a long nap, avoiding the gym.

But doctors are busy with last-minute preparations as millions of new patients sign up for health insurance and seek treatment they’ve put off – in some cases for years.

Anybody who’s been watching the Affordable Care Act roll out knows the next few months in healthcare will be filled with confusion, and the doctor’s office is Ground Zero.

On the eve of the Affordable Care Act’s full launch, different scenarios are running through Dr. Cheryl Bettigole’s head. Say, someone on a new plan coming in on Thursday with a hernia that needs immediate attention.

“Ok, we can give you a surgery referral,” says Bettigole. “But who takes your insurance? You know that book that’s going to arrive in the mail and tell us the whole list of specialists, we don’t have that yet.”

Referrals are one thing, but Bettigole says she’s not sure how much her doctors will get paid under the new exchange plans.

“If we end up with very low reimbursements for patients with these exchange plans, that could impact our ability to stay open or provide services,” she says.

Dr. Charles Cutler, an internist in suburban Philadelphia who also chairs the Board of the American College of Physicians, believes his patients will better off in the long run.

“My estimate is that things are going to be good, that this is going to work, and we will not have a breakdown of the medical system,” he says.

Over Cutler’s 30 years in practice, he has seen patients routinely turn down treatment, more concerned about cost than their own health. He thinks that will be different under the Affordable Care Act.

“We’re suddenly covering preventive care, screening we’re covering," he says. "So people will have an opportunity to be diagnosed earlier,” he says.

Cutler knows there will be mistakes: like patients leaving his office with prescriptions not covered by their new insurance plans. But he says that happens now, adding that the protections for patients that are new will be worth the headaches in the coming months.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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