June 20, 2019 05:11 pm News Staff – In written testimony to lawmakers considering physicians' student debt burden, the AAFP expressed support for legislation that would ease that load -- and added that it should go further.
"The AAFP recommends the development of innovative programs that promote direct and indirect medical training debt relief for family medicine and primary care," said the June 12 statement(6 page PDF) to the U.S. House Committee on Small Business.
Specifically, the Academy wrote, student loan interest should be deductible from federal income tax, regardless of income, and interest and principal payments on medical student loans should be deferred until after completion of postgraduate training.
The statement was sent to the committee for a June 12 hearing titled "The Doctor Is Out. Rising Student Loan Debt and the Decline of the Small Medical Practice" that highlighted the Resident Education Deferred Interest Act.
The AAFP said funding for federal loan and scholarship programs that target family medicine and primary care should be expanded and repeated its long-standing support for the National Health Service Corps. That program, which offers scholarships or loan repayment as incentives for physicians to enter primary care settings that treat Americans in rural and underserved areas, "helps ensure wider access to both health care and medical education opportunities," the Academy said.
The mean student loan debt for four years of medical school, undergraduate studies and higher education was $196,520 last year, up from $190,694 in 2017, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Meanwhile, debt was among the top challenges cited by physicians participating in Medscape's 2018 Residents Lifestyle & Happiness Report. Relief from that pressure was one factor respondents said would help prevent burnout. Further, research has shown that loan forgiveness or repayment programs directly influence physician practice choice.
These pressures continue to factor into what a study released this spring calls a "real and significant" shortage of primary care physicians.
Not surprisingly, then, the Resident Education Deferred Interest Act has broad support from medical organizations.
"This bill would save physicians and dentists in residency thousands of dollars in interest," said a March 2019 letter(2 page PDF) to sponsors of the legislation. "Providing interest accrual relief during residency also would make the concepts of opening practices in underserved areas or entering faculty or research more attractive and affordable to residents."
That letter, which was signed by the AAFP alongside the AMA and 31 other medical organizations, echoed a 2018 call for support(1 page PDF) of a similar bill during that legislative session that was signed by the Academy and 15 peer organizations.
Alleviating student debt burden for family physicians also resonated at the 2019 National Conference of Constituency Leaders in April. Delegates there adopted a resolution calling for the AAFP to seek collaboration with financial institutions on loan consolidation programs "geared toward lowering the interest rate on privately funded student loans" for practicing family physicians.
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