Our Voice: Repayment program would attract medical providers

In the next few weeks, the House and the Senate will be presenting their versions of the state’s budget. One line we hope to see on both sides of the Legislature is an investment to expand the State Health Professional Loan Repayment program.

This program encourages new medical professionals to take jobs in areas with a critical shortage of providers. Becoming a medical provider — doctor, dentist, pharmacist, nurse practitioner — is expensive; new graduates can accrue hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. If they take a job with a designated health care provider, they can apply for the loan repayment grant and receive up to $35,000 a year for a two- or three-year commitment.

This kind of incentive makes the difference when recruiting — and retaining — medical professionals in the safety net clinics of Washington say folks like Al Cordova, CEO of Tri-Cities Community Health; Denny Bradshaw, with the Washington State Dental Association and local oncologist Sheila Rege, board member of the Washington State Medical Association who recently sat down with the editorial board.

It’s a winning situation for the communities in our state like out that have a desperate need for providers for low-income residents. According to the Washington Student Achievement Council, the group that administers the program, 100 providers worked in underserved areas of Washington last year as a result of this program. Since 1990, the program has funded more than 1,000 loan repayment professionals serving in 38 of Washington’s 39 counties.

The Mid-Columbia is one of these areas — as is much of rural Washington.

The problem is the need for funding. At the its high mark, the program had $8.7 million to attract professionals. Since 2011, that number has dropped to just over a million dollars — and half of that is matching money from the federal government. It’s an 87 percent cut in funding. We can’t expect them to compete with that kind of handicap.

Senate Bill 5010 and House Bill 1080 address the need to restore funding by investing $8 million in the program over the biennium. This could potentially help an additional 118 providers a year.

Whether or not these bills make it out of committee, budget writers have the ability to include a line item in their budgets. We encourage them to do so. It’s important to our community.

Washington has a shortage of medical providers. As more people pick up insurance because of the Affordable Care Act, the demand for health care is only going to increase. We need a reliable work force of primary care health professionals in clinics like our Tri-City Community Health and Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic.

The Legislature can help close the ever-widening gap. It’s too important of an area to ignore. The $8 million is a reasonable amount that will reap valuable rewards.