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Eye On Boise

Student loan repayment program sought to lure psychiatrists, docs to state hospitals

Idaho is considering a student loan repayment program to draw doctors, psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and physicians assistants to a pair of chronically understaffed rural state hospitals, the AP reports, State Hospital North in Orofino and its sister State Hospital South in Blackfoot. Senate-passed legislation to authorize the repayment program, SB 1362, cleared a House committee this morning, and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee today unanimously approved the funding, which would come from state endowment funds for the two mental hospitals. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Katie Terhune.

Idaho eyes move to lure psychiatrists to hospitals
By KATIE TERHUNE, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho is considering a student loan repayment program to draw highly trained psychiatrists to a pair of rural state hospitals.

A high demand for psychiatrists in Idaho has kept State Hospital North in Orofino and its sister branch State Hospital South in Blackfoot chronically understaffed.

"One of the challenges with recruiting practitioners to our state hospitals, quite honestly, is that we don't have anything to offer them other than a salary," Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Division Administrator Ross Edmunds said.

Giving job candidates the opportunity to slim down their student loan debt could help the hospitals recruit and retain bright staff, he said.

"Since I've been in my position, and for several years prior to that, we've never been fully staffed at our state hospitals," Edmunds said.

State Hospital North is located in Orofino, a town of 3,000 people in north-central Idaho. The 55-bed facility sits across from the prison and next door to Orofino High School, where the mascot — the Maniacs — is a wild-haired man, barefoot and screaming.

The area is a haven for hunters and fisherman, but those attractions aren't always enough to lure talented medical workers.

The problem goes beyond the sites' rural locations. The dearth of qualified psychiatry professionals in the state means the Idaho facilities that need them are competing fiercely with each other for job candidates.

State Hospital North currently has a job contender interested in a vacant slot for a psychiatrist and medical director. But if loan repayment is off the table, the candidate told recruiters, he is going somewhere else.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to approve $170,000 in endowment money to fund the program, with each hospital receiving $85,000. Psychiatrists, psychologists and mid-level practitioners — like physicians' assistants and nurse practitioners — would be eligible for the repayment option after working at a hospital for a year. Current employees would also be eligible.

The House Health and Welfare Committee also backed the plan, sending it forward to debate on the House floor. The bill already cleared the Senate with a unanimous vote last week.

The payout to doctors would be staggered over the course of four years, in part to dissuade new hires from jumping ship at the one-year mark. Under the plan, psychiatrists would receive $15,000 toward their debt after the first and second year at a state hospital. After the third year, the amount would jump to $20,000, and rise to $25,000 after the fourth year. Psychologists and physicians assistants would receive $10,000 the first and second years, and $15,000 the third and fourth years.

Currently, State Hospital North and State Hospital South have a vacancy of only one psychiatrist each. However, the hospitals are using mid-level practitioners to fill some spots meant for a psychiatrist, and contracting out other services due to understaffing, something that gets expensive fast.

Ken Kraft, administrator at State Hospital North, said trouble with recruiting isn't new.

"It's been ongoing, and I think it's gotten worse," he said. "There seems to be a shortage on a national level of psychiatrists."

The American Medical Association says the average debt for a 2012 medical school graduate was nearly $170,000.

The repayment program will likely appeal to more than just new grads, Edmunds said.

"It isn't a quick process to pay off those loans," he said. "They often follow a person for quite a ways into their career."

The student debt repayment plan isn't the only idea officials are mulling.

The two psychiatric hospitals are also eying their budgets to find money to put toward modest recruitment bonuses and salary increases. Money for that is scarce, and boosting one person's pay but not another could cause jealousy — and potentially exacerbate turnover.

Kathie Garrett, a board member for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Idaho, reminded lawmakers the issue goes deeper than a budgetary bottom line.

"Just as we would not want ourselves or our families and friends to be treated in an understaffed or non-accredited general hospital, we do not want that for mental illness," she said.

Lawmakers largely agreed, although some argued the hospitals should work to increase pay before asking the Legislature to fund a new program.

Republican Rep. Fred Wood, the House Health and Welfare chairman and a physician in Burley, said offering a reprieve from medical school debt is a good way to get professionals interested.

"If you don't make it attractive, you're not going to recruit. Period," he said.


Copyright 2014 The Associated Press

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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