Loan repayments fortify some in Mass. health care

Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll speaks at a livestreamed student loan repayment announcement event at the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center.

Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll speaks at a livestreamed student loan repayment announcement event at the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center. SCREENSHOT

By CHRIS LISINSKI

State House News Service

Published: 08-22-2023 1:55 PM

BOSTON — In a move that one Massachusetts social worker described as an “answered prayer,” the state will repay more than $140 million in student loans for almost 3,000 health care providers who serve communities in need.

An estimated 2,935 primary care and behavioral health providers will receive loan repayment awards in exchange for committing to work with eligible providers, such as community health centers and acute care hospitals, for four or five years.

The awards, which range between $12,500 and $300,000, are the first in the “MA Repay” program that former Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration launched in November, funded by federal pandemic relief money as well as opioid lawsuit settlements. They’re also just the start: officials said Monday that another $120 million more will flow in the coming months thanks to funding lawmakers included in the new state budget.

The next round of awards will be targeted toward home and human services providers, continuous skilled nursing providers, and Department of Mental Health employees providing clinical care or case management, according to the Mass. League of Community Health Centers.

How much an individual provider received this round depends on their qualifications, work setting and hours worked, according to the Healey administration. A spokesperson said 39 people are set to receive $300,000 awards, all of whom are either full-time psychiatrists or child and adolescent psychiatrists.

In Brockton, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll pitched the “MA Repay” program as a “lifeline” that will help more providers overcome barriers and put down roots in areas with some of the most potent staffing shortages. She said “every single applicant” can receive a repayment award.

She contrasted the awards from a “Publishers Clearing House moment,” referencing the sweepstakes in which winners are greeted with an oversized check.

“It’s not a random knock on the door. We’re reinvesting in all of you who are helping care for neighbors,” Driscoll said, flanked by state officials and community health center leaders at an event in Brockton. “We’re reinvesting in the individuals who are helping us heal. We’re reinvesting in strengthening our communities by providing the type of health care we need on the ground every single day. I can’t think of a better way to utilize public funding than to reinvest in ourselves.”

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A majority of the recipients work in “historically underserved” areas, many of which are Gateway Cities, according to the Healey administration.

Close to half of the recipients are people of color, 70% are women, and 47% are younger than 35, which Driscoll said is especially important “at a time when we want to make sure our young adults, this next generation, can launch.”

Health care providers across Massachusetts have been struggling with staffing shortages for years, particularly during and in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency, that spill over into impacts on patient care and costs.

“Many, many people in health care have crushing debt,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kate Walsh. “The debt that young residents face or a social worker faces, particularly against their earning potential, is really staggering, so this loan repayment not only helps people stabilize their lives, stabilize their families, maybe they can buy a house some day, but it also keeps them working in the communities they’ve come to love with the patients they’ve come to love and respect.”

Awardees became emotional when discussing the impact the loan repayment would have on their careers and their personal lives.

Linda Alvarez, a behavioral health clinician at the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center that hosted the event, said she will now be able to “truly focus” on supporting historically underserved patients.

“It is because of this opportunity that I find this to be more than a dream come true,” Alvarez said, appearing to fight back tears. “For me, this is an answered prayer that opens so many opportunities to expand my love of helping as many people in need and gives my wonderful family and I the opportunity to dream and accomplish other goals we previously placed on hold.”

Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers President and CEO Michael Curry said the funding will provide a boon for community health centers, which serve more than 1 million patients per year across the state.

“As we speak, health centers in Massachusetts are dealing with an unprecedented workforce crisis at a time when pent-up demand for care and services is at an all-time peak. This is constraining access to essential preventive services,” Curry said.

He added, “This will actually make a difference. This program will keep desperately needed providers in communities that need them most.”

The debt relief comes at a time when many other Americans with student loan debt are preparing to resume monthly payments. A pandemic-era pause on student loans is about to expire and the U.S. Supreme Court in June rejected President Joe Biden’s plan to wipe away about $430 billion in student loan debt.

Brockton Neighborhood Health Center CEO Susan Joss, whose facility employs 10 recipients of loan repayment awards, praised the program as a way to keep workers employed at community health centers, which often do not pay as much as other health care facilities.

“A lot of health centers, including ours, in Massachusetts are struggling financially. We had money to support us through COVID. At BNHC, we’re estimating it was about $42 million in COVID funds came in. Now, that’s gone,” Joss said.