Program rewards med students who commit to serving in primary care shortage areas

Primary care received a financial boost on Feb. 13 from the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), which awarded more than $9 million to medical students in 30 states and the District of Columbia to help strengthen the healthcare workforce. The NHSC’s Students to Service Loan Repayment Program, authorized by the Affordable Care Act, supports fourth-year medical students who are committed to primary care in exchange for their service in limited-access communities.

Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made the award announcement at the Eisner Pediatric and Family Medical Center, a federally qualified health center caring for underserved communities in downtown and south Los Angeles. Nearly 90 percent of the medical center’s patients live below the poverty level.

“This new program is an innovative approach to encouraging more medical students to work as primary care doctors,” said Sebelius.  “This is an important part of the administration’s commitment to building the future healthcare workforce.”

Students to Service, a pilot program administered by HHS’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), provides loan repayment assistance of up to $120,000 to medical students (MDs and DOs) in their last year of education. In return, they commit to serve in a health professional shortage area upon completion of a primary care residency program.

“The average medical school debt of the students receiving these awards is more than $200,000,” said HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield, PhD, RN.  “The Students to Service program relieves a tremendous debt burden, allowing them to follow their passion for primary care and serve some of the country’s most underserved rural and urban communities.”

The newest NHSC providers must serve three years of full-time service or six years of half-time service in rural and urban areas of greatest need.

Eric Schluederberg, one of the program awardees and a fourth-year medical student at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., credited his fiancé, who has Spina Bifida, with helping to inspire him to serve in the NHSC.

“I always knew my calling was primary care,“ he said. “I’m not a social researcher and I’m not an economist, but it seems that there are a lot of underserved people in this nation, and that providing sound primary care is a good economic investment. For example, ensuring that pregnant women know to take folic acid supplements is one way to prevent the cost of the numerous surgeries required to help someone with Spina Bifida become an independent member of society.”

The awardees announced this week will join NHSC providers already providing primary care at more than 14,000 healthcare sites in urban, rural and frontier areas.

Since its founding in 1972, NHSC has connected more than 41,000 primary healthcare practitioners to communities throughout the United States.

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