Physicians to Congress: Continue Funding Loan Repayment Program

August 04, 2017 01:21 pm Michael Laff Washington, D.C. –

Andrea Anderson, M.D., a family physician in Washington, D.C., imagined a career in medicine at a young age, inspired by a television show.  

Andrea Anderson, M.D., a family physician in Washington, D.C., shares her experiences in the National Health Service Corps during a briefing co-sponsored by the AAFP and the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved.

"I always wanted to be a doctor," Anderson said at a briefing to call for continued funding of the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), which helped her realize her dream. "I liked Little House on the Prairie and liked the idea of living in the community and caring for patients' needs from cradle to grave."

Anderson graduated from medical school with substantial debt, but the NHSC enabled her to pay down her student loans while she worked in a community setting. As director of family medicine at Unity Health Care, Anderson now divides her time between patient care and teaching residents at the center.

"NHSC makes it possible to stay in the community because your debt is being taken care of," she said at the Aug. 2 briefing for members of Congress and their staff members, which was co-sponsored by the AAFP and the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved. The AAFP also launched a Speak Out campaign to help members contact their legislators about the program.

The NHSC Loan Repayment Program helps fully trained family physicians pay off qualifying educational loans in exchange for service in a designated health professional shortage area. The program also offers scholarships and monthly living stipends to medical students committed to providing primary care in underserved communities. Annual funding is set at $310 million, but it will expire on Sept. 30 without congressional action.

Anderson made a two-year commitment with NHSC, and it turned into 13 years of building relationship with her patients. Recently she mentioned to a longtime friend that a patient had seen her outside the office and started talking proudly about having voted in a recent election.

"That's what you always wanted to be -- a community doctor," the friend told Anderson.

Anderson agreed. "It's not just about giving them antibiotics," she said. "You can become part of their lives and empower them."

The NHSC program was launched in 1972 and has grown steadily in recent decades, but its funding was extended for only two years under the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015.

"This is definitely a program that recruits top-notch doctors and dentists," Anderson said. "How do you keep the pipeline open? One of the ways you can do it is through the NHSC."

Anderson said she would have chosen primary care even if the NHSC did not exist, but the decision about whether to work at a community health center would have been more difficult because large health networks can offer higher salaries and signing bonuses.

For residents considering the NHSC, Anderson said it is essential to find a community where they are comfortable. She noted that as a Spanish speaker, she has chosen to practice in a neighborhood where her language skills are valuable.

Two legislators, Reps. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., are circulating a letter( calling on their peers to support continued program funding.

"Funding is set to expire at the end of this fiscal year, endangering the future of this cost-effective primary health care program," the letter states. "This program has traditionally received bipartisan support and we intend to continue these efforts moving forward."

Related AAFP News Coverage
Study Cites Debt Load as Influence on Residents' Career Choice

In the Trenches blog: Connecting Family Physicians to Communities in Need

More From AAFP
Debt Management Resources for Students