Scholarship, loan program a win-win for doctors, patients
Physicians are eligible for awards under the National Health Service Corps to help them pay off student loans -- if they agree to practice in underserved areas.
By Damon Adams, AMNews staff. April 1, 2002. Additional information
The federal government is shelling out more money this year to get doctors and other health care professionals to work in underserved communities.
The National Health Service Corps is offering $89.4 million in scholarships and loan repayments to medical students, doctors and others willing to serve in rural and inner-city areas where residents lack adequate access to medical care. That's roughly $19 million more than last year -- funding for more than 1,300 new and continuing scholarships and loan repayment awards.
"Many students go into medicine hoping to improve the lives of the poor and the uninsured, but graduate with too much debt to pursue such a calling. The National Health Service Corps makes it possible for hundreds of young doctors and clinicians to answer that call," U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said in a statement.
The NHSC, managed by HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration, is part of HHS' efforts to increase access to care in rural and inner-city communities. About 53 million Americans live in communities without access to primary care, according to the NHSC.
The scholarships and loan repayments play a vital role in supplying physicians to areas that need doctors, said Steve Wilhide, executive director of the National Rural Health Assn. in Washington, D.C.
"It's absolutely critical," he said.
About 53 million Americans live in communities without access to primary care.
That's an opinion shared by Barbara Patridge, MD, an ob-gyn in Georgetown, Ohio. She was a struggling first year medical student from a lower middle-class family in South Dakota when she applied for an NHSC scholarship in 1978.
"It became pretty clear I was going to need some serious help to continue," she said. That year she was awarded a scholarship, which paid for tuition and books and gave her a stipend of approximately $500 a month.
"I was able to devote all of my energy to my studies and was able to finish medical school without a ton of debt," said Dr. Patridge, who still works in the rural community where she was assigned.
NHSC scholarship and loan repayment recipients must commit to practice for at least two years in areas with the worst shortages of doctors and other medical professionals. About half of the corps' award winners work in community centers that are supported by HHS and geared toward patients who have financial and social barriers to care.
About $70.8 million was awarded by the corps last year. Over half of the scholarship winners were medical students while 60% of the repayment recipients were primary care physicians.
This year's nearly $19 million increase in the budget will support 900 new and continuing loan repayment awards and 420 new and continuing scholarship awards. But Wilhide said the NHSC should get more government funding.
$89.4 million in scholarships and loan repayments is available for those practicing in underserved areas.
"It is a good beginning, but they need to continue to increase this program," said Wilhide, adding that 70% of physician shortage areas are nonmetropolitan parts of the country.
According to HHS, President Bush is asking for a 32% increase in the NHSC budget for fiscal year 2003, a jump that would allow for awards to 1,800 physicians and other clinicians who work in underserved sections.
Various health professionals, including doctors, are eligible for loan repayment awards, with maximum repayments of up to $50,000 for a two-year contract. Scholarships go to students enrolled or accepted for enrollment in accredited medical schools, dental schools and physician assistant, family nurse practitioner and certified nurse-midwifery programs.
"We are looking for the best and brightest to work where they can turn people's lives around and provide health care to people not used to getting it," Thompson said.
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National Health Service Corps (http://www.bhpr.hrsa.gov/nhsc/)
NHSC loan repayment (http://www.bhpr.hrsa.gov/nhsc/get_involved/lrp.html)
NHSC scholarships (http://www.bhpr.hrsa.gov/nhsc/get_involved/scholarships.html)