Group pays medical loans in exchange for time in safety net clinics

The Colorado Health Services Corps has a deal for graduating medical students: They’ll repay student loans, if the new doctors work in safety net clinics caring for poor or uninsured patients.

That’s how Dr. Jennifer McLean in Denver joined Clinica Family Health Services as a family doctor.

“I have many peers from medical school whom, having chosen a path that that was more financially rewarding, have been able to pay off their loans completely,” McLean said. “I am rewarded in numerous ways on a daily basis at work, but cannot deny that having my financial loan burden lifted is an important attribute. It will keep me dedicated to this community health center long after my loan obligation is fulfilled.”

This year was the best ever for the combined efforts of the National Health Service Corps and the Colorado Health Service Corps, reflecting a growing need for primary care doctors. By the year’s end the national group will have granted more than $12 million and contracted with 240 primary care providers. Colorado’s share of that equals $2.5 million to nearly 80 providers.

Each year, the two groups host a “Corps Community Day,” a sort of job fair that promotes the loan-repayment plans and professionals who want to learn about mission-driven careers.

Despite a record number of grants, there is a stark need for primary care workers. Many of Colorado’s 3,200 primary care doctors are nearing retirement age, and significant percentage of medical students is choosing to going to specialty programs instead of family medicine. Some 85 percent of Colorado is deemed a professional health shortage area.

At the same time, safety net clinics are seeing increased demand for services. One in 10 people in Colorado depend on a community health center for primary care.

“We need doctors to work in community health centers,” said Donald Moore, CEO at Pueblo’s Community Health Center. “Every doctor we hire allows us to provide another 1,500 patients to access to care.”