The Biden administration on Monday announced $1.5 billion in funding to help eliminate the shortage of doctors and nurses in underserved communities by providing scholarships and repaying the student loans of providers who work in medically needy areas.
The pandemic has highlighted what has long been a barrier to accessing quality medical care in rural areas and communities of color: provider shortages. The lack of primary care physicians hindered testing, treating and educating patients about the coronavirus and the vaccines, and now growing staff shortages in hospitals are aggravating an already inadequate health care infrastructure.
“Our nation must invest in a health care workforce that looks like America and provide access to equitable health care for all Americans,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at a briefing Monday. “There is more work to be done, but I believe we are headed in the right direction.”
The money, made available through the American Rescue Plan, will be able to support nearly 23,000 providers through the National Health Service Corps and Nurse Corps, according to the White House.
There are more than 16,000 clinicians caring for millions of patients through the National Health Service Corps, which was founded in 1972 in response to dwindling numbers of primary care physicians. They work in areas with limited access to health care and, during the pandemic, thousands served in community health centers and hospitals across the country, administering coronavirus tests, caring for infected patients, and putting shots in arms.
National Health Service Corps funding supports four loan repayment programs for medical, dental and mental health professionals. In exchange for two to three years of work at an approved site, participants can receive up to $100,000 in loan forgiveness, depending on the line of service. Scholarships are also available for students willing to commit a minimum of two years in exchange for a full year of funding.
Participation and funding have increased over the years, but demand in some programs has outpaced the money available to support them. An audit released in June by the Government Accountability Office found 43% of the more than 11,100 providers who applied to programs did not receive funding in fiscal 2020. While some applicants were simply ineligible, others were rejected because the limited funds are prioritized for those serving in areas with the most severe shortages.
The funding, according to a White House official, is in response to recommendations from the White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to invest in a representative health workforce and increase equitable access.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, about 17% of doctors in the United States are Asian, 6% are Latino, 6% are Latino, and less than 1% are American Indian and Alaska Native.
Medical school student loan debt, which averages more than $200,000, is often a barrier to pursing graduate studies in health care, which the National Health Service Corp helps offset through the scholarships and loan repayments. More than 25% of the physicians in the group are Black and Latino.
Luis Padilla, an alumnus and the director of the National Health Service Corps, called the program “life-changing.” He said, “This is particularly true for clinicians of color and those from underserved communities who otherwise might not be able to become primary care doctors, nurses, dentists and behavioral health providers.”
He added, “Because of these programs, they can help ensure that patients in these underserved communities see themselves in the clinicians who care and provide them care.”