For Physical Therapists, a Sudden Drought

THE JOURNAL RECORD, July 7, 1999 | Go to article overview
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For Physical Therapists, a Sudden Drought


NEW YORK (NYT) -- The physical therapy field has undergone a rather sudden shift. For years it was a booming field desperate for skilled practitioners, but now it faces a slowdown caused by its own growing pains, the growth of managed care and, especially, Medicare cutbacks that took effect in January. Years of undersupply have given away to rising unemployment, reduced work hours and salaries, and a tighter job market.

"The shortfall has literally evaporated," said William Quillen, director of the physical therapy program at Indiana University in Indianapolis. "There's just not the hot, hot job market there was two or three years ago."

In the past decade, the number of physical therapy programs at colleges and universities nationwide soared 75 percent, to 208, with graduates in fierce demand to treat an aging, fitness-obsessed population. And thousands of foreign therapists arrived to fill vacancies at hospitals, rehabilitation centers and nursing homes and with home health-care agencies.

Full-time therapists typically earn $55,000 a year, and some make more than $100,000. But the ranks of full-timers are thinning even as more graduates enter the field each year.

Therapists assign some responsibility to managed-care companies' cost controls, but they say the new Medicare spending caps are most to blame. Under a provision of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act that took effect this year, Medicare beneficiaries are now limited to $1,500 a year for physical therapy, though the head of a federal advisory panel recently recommended eliminating that cap.

The changes have meant that many patients get less care than they used to and that new graduates must look longer and harder for jobs.

The American Physical Therapy Association, in Alexandria, Va., which represents about 49,000 of the nation's 116,000 or so licensed therapists, confirmed last month that the Medicare cuts have led to a sharp rise in unemployment and to cuts in therapists' working hours.

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