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Help rural areas attract doctors

Help rural areas attract doctors

Pilot program on loan assistance could get doctors into underserved areas of state
Help rural areas attract doctors
Photographer: Shutterstock

If you live in a rural area and you get sick, you’d better have a good car and a lot of time to spend driving to a doctor.

One aspect of health care that doesn’t get addressed in the congressional battle over insurance coverage is having enough doctors available close by to provide the care.

Because doctors, mental health professionals and other medical practitioners often have extraordinarily high loans to pay back after graduating from college and medical school, they are forced to take jobs in larger population centers where they can make enough money to pay off those loans.

If you live in a rural area, finding doctors nearby is getting tougher and tougher.

While about 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, only 10 percent of the nation’s doctors practice there. Nationwide, it’s estimated that by the year 2025, the nation will have a shortage of up to 90,000 doctors, with rural areas facing the most acute shortage. That has a tangible impact on the quality of critical care that people receive.  And the problem is only expected to get worse.

A bill proposed by Utica-area Assemblyman Bill Magee would attempt to address the shortage of doctors in rural areas by creating a pilot program that would offset a portion of a medical professional’s college debt if they commit to working for at least two years in a rural area where medical care is in short supply.

The bill, A7428, would set up a payment for professionals who set up in the underserved counties of Madison, Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Herkimer, Jefferson and Lewis, Oswego or St. Lawrence.

Among those who would be eligible for the repayments would be physicians, psychologists, social workers, nurses, dental professionals, physical therapists, lab techs, speech language pathologists and pharmacists.

Certain practitioners would be eligible for payment of up to half their loan amount, with a specific dollar cap based on specialty.

The bill is a good start. But it probably needs some tweaking.

In some rural areas of the country, physician pay is often determined by supply and demand. Some professions where there is an acute shortage might garner higher pay, even higher than in an urban area.

So part of the solution might not involve loan forgiveness for those specialties, but simply educating these professionals on the financial benefits of working in a rural area.

The bill also should offer the loan forgiveness based on the specific needs of the particular counties instead assuming that there’s a shortage of all these professions in all of the counties targeted in the legislation.

And the amount of the loan forgiveness and the payment cap might need to be adjusted, based on changes in a rural area’s health care situation. If Hamilton County ends up with a glut of physical therapists, why continue to offer the same loan repayments to attract more physical therapists?

There’s no doubt that something must be done to address the shortage of medical professionals in rural areas. Setting up a pilot program tied to student loan repayments is one option worth further examination.

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