Federal program repays student loans for substance-use clinicians in underserved communities

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the total $75 million funding for the program offering $75,000 of loan repayment program in exchange for three years of service.

PROVIDENCE — The National Health Service Corps Substance Use Disorder Workforce Loan Repayment Program, established by Congress on June 12, 2018, funds $75 million for loan repayment to clinicians who treat substance use disorder in underserved, high-need communities across the country, and the application deadline is Feb. 21.

The program, which is funded through 2020, began accepting applications Dec. 27. Health care clinicians qualified to provide medication-assisted treatment and other substance use disorder treatment services can apply to receive up to $75,000 in student loan repayment. In exchange, they will serve for three years in an underserved community helping people fighting substance abuse.

Richard Olague, director of the Division of External Affairs in the Bureau of Health Workforce at the Health Resources & Services Administration, which runs the program, said the administration hopes to award the loan aid to about 1,000 clinicians nationwide.

“It’s part of the solution,” said Olague when asked whether that number of clinicians would make a significant difference in addressing the national opioid epidemic. He said the point of the program is to increase the clinicians providing care for substance use disorder in locations that most need it.

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Jody Vieira, director of integrated behavioral health at Tri-County Community Action Agency in Johnston, said the new program will do significant good in the locations it’s applied.

“I’m really excited because I have two clinicians who are applying for this,” Viera said.

Vieira, who is enrolled in the Health Resources & Services Administration’s core National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program, which provides primary care services to underserved patients, said the potential for the clinicians to win the student loan aid is a perk that attracts clinicians to her agency to administer to people in the community.

“Which is very underserved,” Vieira noted.

Through the state loan repayment program, the Health Resources & Services Administration provides cost-sharing grants to more than 30 states to operate their own loan repayment programs. These state programs offer loan repayment to primary care providers working in underserved communities.

The new program adds substance use disorder counselors as eligible professionals who can apply to the state loan repayment program.

Should her two clinicians win the aid, “It’s giving them peace of mind to hang on and stay with us,” Vieira said. “It’s really helping them to focus on this population.”

Rob Borkowski is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Borkowski@PBN.com.