Loan repayment programs support mission-driven healthcare

As a clinical pharmacist working in a community health center, I provide care for low-income and underserved patients across our community – including working with those impacted by the opioid and other substance use epidemics.  Despite our clinic’s efforts and successes, we are often confronted with concerning shortages of healthcare providers needed to address the challenges of providing high-quality and accessible care. However, I am optimistic we can address these shortages with proven solutions, including state legislative investments in service-based loan repayment programs.

I am fortunate to be a member of an exceptional team of healthcare providers and staff who integrate substance use disorder treatment into the delivery of primary care.  As part of a safety net community health center, our team provides care for patients regardless of insurance or the ability to pay. Together, we provide Medication for Opioid Use Disorder (also known as MOUD), counseling, and other therapies that help individuals reclaim their lives. Our entire community benefits from the recovery of individuals, as they are our coworkers, friends, family, and neighbors – just as the community benefits from the broader primary care services provided by our health center.

Albert Carbo, Peninsula Community Health Services
Albert Carbo, Peninsula Community Health Services

Unfortunately, it is challenging to fill vacant healthcare provider positions to support our community. Graduates of health professional schools are often forced to contend with substantial student debt while balancing the financial realities of taking care of their own families and loved ones. Similarly, many community health centers continue to struggle to attract healthcare providers who may feel pressure to prioritize financial benefits to pay-down their student debt.  While the mission-driven work of health centers aligns with the values that motivate many to become healthcare providers, the realities of debt can prevent some from joining community health clinics.

My own story can serve as a humble example of how loan repayment can help address the healthcare workforce shortage: I had the good fortunate of obtaining my own clinical knowledge and skillsets through years of training.  I worked hard to earn a management position at a well-known Midwest university medical setting. However, despite the security of this position, I continued to long for a role where I could better serve rural and underserved communities.

When the opportunity to join Peninsula Community Health Services presented, my wife and I carefully weighed the financial risks of moving our young family across the country against our outstanding student debts. The ability to apply for the Washington State Health Corps Loan Repayment Program – a program that repays student debt for healthcare providers who commit to caring for underserved populations – allowed us to move to the peninsula so that I could be a part of this health center’s efforts to improve the health of local communities.

Unfortunately, the Loan Repayment Program is currently underfunded. Last year, the program was limited to funding only half of the qualified applicants, leaving 165 healthcare providers without the support they needed.  These healthcare providers not only represent improved access to the people we serve, but also support existing provider staff, who have been stretched thin while attempting to meet the incredible demand for services – with provider burn-out well-documented in recent years.

Loan repayment programs are a valuable investment in the healthcare offered across our communities. Right now, our state Legislature is making key decisions regarding healthcare workforce shortages. Decisions that could make mission-driven work more accessible to qualified healthcare providers – and, in turn, impact the health and well-being of those across our local communities. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this work. I hope that the Legislature will continue to invest in others drawn to caring for our local underserved populations.

Albert Carbo is a clinical pharmacist with Peninsula Community Health Services and one of several leaders in their Medication for Opioid Use Disorder program. He works at clinics throughout the Peninsula.

This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Washington loan repayment programs support mission-driven healthcare