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Two bills that can change the way physician assistants in Pa. care for you | Opinion

There are more than 123,000 PAs across the country, and close to 10,000 work in Pennsylvania.

There are more than 123,000 PAs across the country, and close to 10,000 work in Pennsylvania.
There are more than 123,000 PAs across the country, and close to 10,000 work in Pennsylvania.Read moreiStockPhoto

You may be familiar with this famous quote from Phil Jackson, a legendary professional basketball coach: "The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team."

His words ring true: We all have our individual strengths, but we're strongest when we work together.

In hospitals and medical offices around the country, health care is looking more and more like a team sport. When you make an appointment to receive medical care, you may find yourself in the hands of several different providers, rather than just a physician. That's because providers recognize that in the 21st century, patients receive the best care when everyone works together, and when each individual is able to use his or her strengths to improve a patient's health.

PAs, or physician assistants, are critical members of these teams. PAs are medical professionals who diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications, and often serve as a patient's principal health-care provider. They practice in every state and in every medical setting and specialty. There are more than 123,000 PAs across the country, and close to 10,000 work in Pennsylvania.

With more than 2,000 hours of clinical training in master's degree programs, one of their greatest strengths lie in their generalist medical education. Able to treat the "whole patient," PAs can provide a wide spectrum of care.

And while specific duties depend on where they work, their experience, their specialty, and specific state laws, PAs generally perform most of the same tasks as the physicians they work with.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania has one of the most challenging practice environments for PAs. State laws and regulations have placed a heavy administrative burden on physician-PA teams. Senate Bills 895 and 896 would have removed some unnecessary restrictions and enable practice-level decision-making by PAs and the physicians with whom they practice.

But disappointingly, the Pennsylvania Senate chose not to bring those bills to a full vote last week.

It is imperative that the legislature take up these bills in the next session. Until these laws are updated, PAs in Pennsylvania will continue fighting an uphill battle to provide patients with the best possible care.

Currently, PAs practicing in Pennsylvania must submit their written practice agreement with a physician to the state medical boards for approval. This means that the board — not the physician-PA team — has final say on what a PA can and cannot do.

The state also limits the number of PAs a physician can work with, and the current limit is four. Plus, PAs can't have more than three supervising physicians in a medical care facility, an unusual requirement that limits the number of PAs who can practice in certain locations. This, in turn, restricts patient access to care and would be solved by Senate Bills 895 and 896.

These are just a handful of examples of how these bills would increase provider efficiency and patient access.

Some physicians have expressed opposition to these bills out of concern that they signal a move toward independent practice for PAs. But that isn't the case.

PAs understand the importance of team-based care and value a sustained partnership with physicians. At the end of the day, these bills are meant to help PAs and physicians provide their patients with better care, by allowing them to be more flexible and adaptable.

Even with the passage of Senate Bills 895 and 896, PA-physician teams wouldn't go anywhere. They're here to stay. But it's time to say goodbye to the unnecessary red tape and restrictions that Pennsylvania laws put on health-care teams. It's time to put patients first.

Kathryn Kugler is president of the Pennsylvania Society of Physician Assistants and a physician assistant at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.