Guest Editorial

NHSC Repayment Program Reduces Debt, Offers Opportunity

October 10, 2017 04:45 pm Brian Freeman, M.D., M.P.H.

(Editor's Note: The National Health Service Corps has extended the Students to Service Loan Repayment Program application deadline to Oct 26.)

[Brian Freeman, M.D.]

Brian Freeman, M.D., M.P.H.

More than three-fourths of 2016 graduates left medical school with student debt. For those with loans to repay, the average debt was $189,165, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).(members.aamc.org) 

Starting salaries and payment plans obviously vary, but according to the AAMC, repaying a loan of that size could take up to 20 years. Spread over such a lengthy period, physicians could pay more in interest than their original debt.

What if I told you there's a much better way?
(nhsc.hrsa.gov)

I had $160,000 worth of student debt when I graduated from the University of Louisville School of Medicine in 2013. Now, just one year post-residency, my debt has been reduced to $34,000. I plan to pay off the balance within the next two years.

Call on Congress to Support NHSC

The National Health Service Corps (NHSC)(nhsc.hrsa.gov ) provides scholarships and loan repayment awards to physicians and other health professionals, who in turn commit to practicing in underserved communities. More than 50,000 health professionals have served in the NHSC since its inception in 1972.

Federal funding for the program expired on Sept. 30, but the AAFP and others are advocating for reauthorization of the program's annual $310 million budget. You can tell your legislators in Washington, D.C., to extend this vital program by calling the U.S. Capitol switchboard at (202) 225-3121.

Despite the lapsed funding deadline, the NHSC is moving forward with applications for its next round of awards for the 2018 Students to Service Loan Repayment Program, and it stands ready to make awards if Congress funds the program. The application deadline is Oct. 19.(nhsc.hrsa.gov)  

I couldn't have erased such a significant burden without the National Health Service Corps' Students to Service Loan Repayment Program, which provides as much as $120,000 to individuals in their final year of medical school in return for a commitment to provide full-time primary care for at least three years at an NHSC-approved site in a designated health professional shortage area. (I received a $113,200 award, which was paid in four annual installments, providing me $28,300 a year starting in my intern year.)

It's not hard to find sites that meet NHSC requirements because there are thousands of health professional shortage areas(www.kff.org) across the country, and the NHSC helps participants find locations that suit them and meet program requirements. For example, my wife and I were expecting our second child when I was finishing residency at Virginia Commonwealth's Fairfax Family Medicine Center, and we wanted to be close to home. The NHSC allowed me to start my practice in Bedford, Va., which is a small community near my wife's family.

The NHSC has allowed me to not only improve my family's financial situation, but also to grow as a physician. I'm the only family physician in my office, which has a pediatrician on-site four days a week and an OB/Gyn on-site once a week. I see patients of both genders and all ages. Our practice is roughly 40 minutes southwest of Lynchburg and 40 minutes northeast of Roanoke, the two largest cities in the area. Many patients in our town of 6,200 people walk to our office or depend on others for rides, making it difficult to refer to subspecialists in those urban areas. I'm providing procedures I might not if I practiced elsewhere -- toenail removals, biopsies, stitching, joint injections, women's health procedures and more. It's a challenge, but a rewarding one, to find solutions to our uninsured and underinsured patients' needs.

It's satisfying knowing we take care of every patient who walks through our door in a community that has an acute need for my care. And it gave my family the long-term benefit of financial stability.

You can do the same for your family by applying before the Oct. 19 deadline.(nhsc.hrsa.gov)