A bill to help repay school loans for health professionals who work in rural and underserved areas was signed into law today by Gov. Jay Inslee.

“This bill kills two birds with one stone,” said by Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, the sponsor of Senate Bill 5615. “There are areas in this state that lack enough primary care professionals to provide the health care that residents need. At the same time, we have students graduating from medical school with huge amounts of debt. This bill has the potential to reinvigorate a program already in state law to help repay school loans for health care professionals who work in these critically underserved areas.”

According to a 2009 survey by UW Medicine magazine, 93 percent of the University of Washington Medical School’s 2009 graduating class had student debt from medical school. Seventy-two percent had more than $100,000 of debt from medical school alone, not counting debt from their undergraduate education.

Washington’s Health Loan Repayment Program provides scholarships and loan forgiveness to health professionals, including doctors and nurses, who intend to practice in underserved rural and urban areas of our state. SB 5615 would empower the Student Achievement Council, which administers the program, to pursue additional public-private partnerships with foundations and other private sources in order to address ongoing critical health professional shortage areas.

Students supported SB 5615 at each step of the process. Anna Hackenmiller, a first-year student at the UW School of Medicine, said “Before attending medical school, I worked as a dental hygienist at the Yakima Valley Farm Worker’s Clinic in Toppenish. I fell in love with the patient population and decided I would be of better service as a physician. Knowing that there is loan repayment for working in a rural area would virtually guarantee my employment in such a community.”

Danielle Micheletti, a recently graduated physician assistant in the Methow Valley, noted the challenges that recent graduates in underserved areas often have in repaying their student loans. “The loan repayment program made it feasible to move to this area where the rate of pay is less than in urban and suburban areas. I had to take a significant pay cut to accept this job.  It has all been worth it though, as I love the Methow Valley and the population we serve,” said Micheletti.

“We’re very appreciative of the Senator’s efforts to find a way to make money, through loans, more available to medical residents,” said Dr. Nick Rajacich, President of the Washington State Medical Association. “Medical education is very costly and this is one way to help address those costs. We need to make sure that we have as many physicians available as possible – particularly in rural areas – as we move toward an expanded number of patients under health care reform. This is one piece that will be very helpful in meeting that goal.”

“Health care should be accessible to all Washingtonians, no matter where they live,” said Frockt. “This bill takes a proven loan repayment program and establishes a process for it to expand at no taxpayer cost. It will enable more primary care professionals to go out and serve more areas that so desperately need their help.”