South Jersey hospital officials are bracing for the effects of the Affordable Care Act, with some planning staffing cuts due to fewer patients visiting their emergency rooms.

Others, however, are hiring more doctors.

Southern Ocean Medical Center, in Ocean County’s Stafford Township, is already seeing a decrease in emergency-room use, as more patients gain access to health insurance and use primary-care physicians, said Joseph Coyle, president of the medical center.

“That’s the dilemma we’re in right now. The Affordable Care Act program is good for patients but can hurt as far as generating revenue for the hospital,” Coyle said.

Coyle said he believes that if more people have health insurance, they are going to need more primary-care physicians. Meridian Health Systems, the parent of the medical center, is recruiting doctors.

But Coyle also said the situation is in flux. There’s no predicting the impact, although he does expect revenue to go down, he said.

“Part of the dynamic could be that people are going to use the emergency department more, because they have health insurance now, or it could be fewer people will come in and access the emergency department because their health is being managed by a primary-care physician,” he said.

That uncertainly comes a year after Southern Ocean Medical Center opened a new $22 million emergency department in response to an uptick in demand caused by the region’s growth during the past 10 years.

Walter Greiner, vice president of finance at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, agreed that hospitals must adapt to changes brought about by the Affordable Care Act.

“Is it going to impact revenue? Yes. If we all do a good job, we will reduce ER admissions and hospital patient admissions,” Greiner said.

By March 1, 74,370 people in New Jersey had selected a marketplace plan through the ACA. New Jersey ranked 15th in total enrollments, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But Greiner said he believes AtlantiCare is in a good position to handle the changes. It has been working to improve accessibility and affordability since 2005. He said the adaptations stemmed from a need to reduce the upfront costs and get patients engaged with their health care to help those in the struggling casino industry.

Greiner cited the addition of the AtlantiCare Special Care Center in 2007 as an affordable health care option, adding, “We knew we had to make sure the cost of health care is affordable for patients and employers themselves.” The centers care for patients from participating organizations with chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma or emphysema.

Health care/education is the third-largest employment sector in Atlantic County, trailing leisure and hospitality and trade/transportation/utilities, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Steven Blumberg, senior vice president and executive director of AtlantiCare Health Solutions, said that under the federal health insurance marketplace program, more people will be accessing physicians and health care as they get access to health insurance.

“That should have a positive impact on economics for the hospital if it bears out this way that more people will be insured,” Blumberg said.

But, like Southern Ocean, AtlantiCare believes that the frontline of health care is the primary care practice.

“We prefer them to have a relationship there as opposed to the ER, which is expensive and not the place to receive primary care,” Blumberg said. “I am not stressed about a physician deficit. It’s just one thing we have to plan for and then get physicians recruited in the right specialty.”

Mark Gill, chief financial officer of Cape Regional Medical Center, said the facility is waiting to see if the Affordable Care Act will have an impact on the uninsured, but so far has seen no dramatic change in either visits to the ER or to primary physicians’ offices.

Even if insurance premiums are subsidized, Gill said, Cape Regional Medical Center is not sure if it will see a dramatic impact on people who did not previously have health insurance.

“People were not paying for insurance premiums and I don’t think they will be jumping up and down to pay for them now,” Gill said.

Contact Donna Weaver:

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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.