- During the pandemic, millions of taxpayer dollars were funneled into a program to hire thousands of doctors and nurses run by the National Health Services Corp.
- The program promised to pay off $50,000 of medical school debt for every two years a doctor worked in rural, poor, or urban areas.
- With funding for the program ending in September, President Joe Biden asked Congress to approve an additional half billion in his budget to keep the program running.
Thousands of women living in rural eastern Maryland have few options when looking for someone to give birth to.
The local hospital does not have an obstetrician on staff, so most women in this area, flanked by vast agricultural fields and antique stores, turn to the Chesapeake Health Care clinic.
Five of the clinic’s 10 obstetricians and midwives are there thanks to the National Health Service Corps, which promises to pay off $50,000 of medical school debt every two years that a doctor works in rural, urban or poor.
“OB is terribly difficult to recruit, and I don’t know exactly why,” said the clinic’s chief medical officer, Dr. Lee Jennings. “We are isolated, we are in an area where we are the only OB group in the whole area.”
Over the past three years, millions of taxpayer dollars have been pumped into the National Health Service Corps to hire thousands more doctors and nurses ready to serve the most desperate parts of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. in exchange for the cancellation of medical school debts. Now, with the health emergency ending, the program’s expansion is at risk – even as people struggle to get quality care in a timely manner due to a scale worker shortage. Of the industry.
Funding for the program expires at the end of September, although President Joe Biden has asked Congress to sign an additional half a billion dollars for the project in his budget.
The number of nurses, doctors, dentists, counselors and midwives exploded thanks to an additional $800 million the US Congress gave to the program in stimulus packages unveiled as the coronavirus raged. Last year just over 20,000 people were members of the corps, up 50% from 13,000 in 2019.
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The program has placed healthcare professionals in a variety of disciplines — from occupational therapists in Ohio to counselors who treat drug addiction and alcoholism in Alaska — in community health centers across the country. These clinics receive federal funding to provide primary care to patients, regardless of their health insurance status or ability to pay.
The program has found rare bipartisan support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers who say they are grateful for the void the body members are filling in rural and needy communities facing shortages. The United States is short of thousands of family doctors, obstetrician-gynecologists and nurses, a problem that is only expected to get worse over the next decade.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who oversees the powerful Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, made the issue a major talking point during the hearings. Sanders said people in his condition have complained to him about waiting up to five months just to get a physical exam with a doctor.
The situation would get worse, he told The Associated Press, if the body’s funding was not renewed and increased.
“People are going to have a hard time finding a dentist, finding a mental health counselor,” Sanders said. “If it’s bad now, it’s only going to get worse.”
Last month, a group of House Republicans sponsored a bill that would continue to fund the body’s program, but would not give it the same cash injection that Biden had requested.
“One of the most recurring issues I’ve heard in my district of Pennsylvania is the shortage of doctors and health care workers,” Republican Rep. John Joyce, who introduced the bill, said at a meeting. a Congressional Hearing on the Shortage of Health Care Workers. month.
Still, the future of the program hangs in the balance with a divided Congress only weeks away from allowing the United States to default on its debts. Uncertainty around funding for the program also makes it difficult for health clinics to recruit providers, said Carole Johnson, who leads the Federal Health Resources and Services Administration that oversees corps funding.
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“We hope to continue to grow. We know there’s a net demand there,” Johnson said. “All the conversations we’ve had have been very positive; that doesn’t make it any easier.”
One of the biggest areas of growth for the program has been mental health, with more than 2,000 additional counsellors, social workers, psychologists and addictions counselors hired over the past four years.
At Chicago’s largest 24-hour treatment center, about eight of Haymarket Center’s providers are corps members. The center receives approximately 12,000 patients each year, many of whom are homeless. The corps program allows the nonprofit Haymarket Center to recruit healthcare workers in a competitive market with a different benefit: up to $250,000 in student loan repayment, said Jeffrey Collord, vice president of operations. of the Center.
“We may not be able to compensate staff at the highest levels, so being able to be part of the program allows us to provide a benefit that other sites don’t have access to,” Collord said.
Canceling student loans has allowed Dr. Stephen Robinson to be the family doctor he always hoped to be. He worried through medical school about the mounting mountain of student loan debt and watched as so many of his classmates seek more lucrative salaries as specialty doctors. But her father researched alternatives and discovered the National Health Service Corps program.
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“If more providers thought they could get out and still be able to pay off their debt, they would go into primary services,” Robinson said. “It allowed us to do that.”
His wife, Caitlin, is one of the coveted OB-GYNs Chesapeake Health Care has recruited into the program. Pregnant women drive up to an hour to see her.
Both are now nearly debt free after spending seven years in the program. But they don’t plan to leave this small Maryland town anytime soon. The Robinsons enjoy raising their children near the shore, fresh air and parks.
“We have no intention of going anywhere, even though we’re done,” said Stephen Robinson.