WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital, the question has become more difficult for many individuals: Where do I go for primary care? Sixty-two million people in the U.S. have little to no access to primary care because of a shortage of primary care physicians, according to the National Association of Community Health Care Centers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the primary care subcommittee, introduced a bill that would boost funding for community health centers that provide medical, dental and mental health care, as well as low-cost prescription drugs. The bill would also increase incentives and opportunity for medical graduates to go into family medicine. It extends higher Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary care providers.

"In my view primary care is intended to be and should be the foundation of the U.S. healthcare system," Sanders said in his opening statement to the Senate panel on Wednesday. "According to virtually every study on this issue, access to primary health care results in better health outcomes, reduced health disparities and lower spending by improving health and therefore reducing costly emergency room and hospital use."

Half of emergency room patients would have gone to a primary care provider if they had been able to get an appointment at the time one was needed, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

Dr. Margaret Flinter, senior vice president and clinical director of Connecticut-based Community Health Center Inc., addressed concerns over making primary care attractive to physicians. She said primary care is the preferred specialty of nurse practitioners, and suggested growing the National Health Service Corps. to influence physicians to seek the opportunity for further intensive training appropriate to the complex setting of community health centers.

"(There are) many challenges that contribute to the shortage of primary care physicians -- the low percentage of medical school graduates who choose primary care vs. specialties, the salary discrepancies between primary care and specialties, the burden of debt, and the deep frustration with primary care practice of the past few decades, which I believe we are fully capable of reversing," Flinter said.

Sanders' bill seeks to expand funding for the NHSC program by authorizing $4.9 billion through 2020 for scholarship and loan-repayment to attract primary care providers to underserved areas. President Barack Obama's 2015 budget proposed $810 million to boost NHSC next year.

The bill would also create a mandatory appropriation for Federally Qualified Health Centers of $25 billion for Fiscal years 2016 to 2020 and appropriate $10 million for the National Health Care Workforce Commission.

Contact Tom Momberg at tmomberg@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomMomberg