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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Loan bill would draw health care providers to underserved areas

The health care provider shortage is at the center of the medical school tussle between Apple Cup rivals, but lawmakers could pluck low-hanging fruit by rejuvenating a loan repayment account that was nearly wiped out four years ago.

The program’s allure was the state’s most effective tool for drawing newly minted health care professionals to rural and other underserved areas of the state. But at the height of the recession, the $7.65 million-per-biennium account was drawn down to about $525,000, just enough to capture federal matching dollars.

The Community Health Network of Washington is asking the Legislature for $8 million, which would allow it to finance loan forgiveness for an additional 118 primary care physicians, nurses, dentists, dental hygienists, psychologists, pharmacists and other qualified health care providers in the first two years. Community health clinics, the backbone of the state’s health care safety net for low-income residents, say loan repayment is an effective recruiter to areas of the state where provider shortages are most acute.

The bordering states of Idaho and Oregon don’t have this enticement, which makes Washington more attractive to health care providers struggling under a six-figure student debt load. Under the program, providers sign three-year contracts in underserved areas and receive checks that go toward loan repayment.

Peg Hopkins, chief executive officer of Community Health Association of Spokane, said 80 percent of physicians recruited through the program have stayed on past the three-year commitments. Jonathan Judd, president of the Spokane District Dental Society, said when he joined CHAS in 2005, all of the dentists were on the loan repayment program, and all of them are still there. Though CHAS doctors and dentists could earn more elsewhere, Hopkins said they come to believe in the mission of community health. Plus, they avoid the business-related headaches of private practices.

Rural areas, which struggle to attract providers, also would benefit greatly from a reinvigorated repayment program. Registered nurse Jennifer Larmer benefited when she went to work for Lincoln County Hospital in Davenport. She immediately landed a day shift, a rarity for new graduates in other settings, and has worked her way up to chief clinical officer. She said restoring program funding would be a boon to recruitment efforts.

Two bills were introduced for the sole purpose of touting the program. They both got hearings, and now it’s up to budget committees to provide the financing. A recent study estimates that by 2030 the state will need nearly 1,700 more primary care physicians, a 32 percent increase. That’s what the battle over a second medical school is all about. But even if Washington State University were to land one, it would take many years before it produced its first graduates.

In the meantime, lawmakers can show their commitment to solving the health care provider shortage by financing a program that places them where they’re needed most.

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