Programs pay off medical school debt

In Colorado, there is a serious need for primary care doctors – both in rural areas and in Colorado Springs. The National Health Service Corps and the Colorado Health Service Corps are trying to address the need through loan forgiveness grants to medical school students.

The National Health Service Corps granted more than $12 million in student loan forgiveness during 2011 in Colorado and contracted with 240 primary care providers to erase medical school debt and get more doctors in rural areas. The CHSC gave more than $2.5 million to nearly 80 primary care doctors.

So far this year, NHSC granted $2.8 million in loan repayment funding to graduating doctors in the state.  In exchange, the new doctors agree to work at community health centers like Peak Vista Community Health Centers, serving an underinsured and indigent population.

“The Health Service Corps has been incredibly successful in helping us attract health care professionals to Community Health Centers,” said Tanah Wagenseller, health center workforce manager for Colorado Community Health Network.  “It’s helping students who want to make a difference find a job where they can do that every day.”

The National Health Service Corps was created 40 years ago to provide rural areas with essential health services, and receives bipartisan support from Congress. The federal government doubled the program in 2009, after recognizing the upcoming shortage of primary care physicians.

The Colorado Health Service Corps offers providers more flexibility and is administered through the Department of Public Health and Environment with funding from the Colorado Health Foundation, the U.S. Health Resources and Services administration, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the state of Colorado, the Colorado Trust and the Comprecare Foundation.

Despite the program’s success, there is still a stark need for new primary care doctors. Colorado has 3,200 licensed primary care physicians, and many are nearing retirement age, while an increasing percentage of medical students are choosing other specialties. Some 85 percent of the state is deemed a professional health shortage area.

At the same time, safety net sites that provide health care expect increased demand as aresult of health care reform. One in 10 people in Colorado depend on a community health center for primary care. That number is expected to grow dramatically when health reform is fully implemented in 2014, expanding access to care to about 540,000 residents.