New Program Relieves Student Loan Debt While Taking On the Opioid Epidemic

Inside Subprime: March 18, 2019

By Lindsay Frankel

A federal loan repayment program is helping clinicians with their student loan debt while encouraging more clinician involvement in the behavioral health workforce so that substance abuse patients have greater access to care.

The program, which is run by the Division of the National Health Service Corps, allows clinicians who work at an approved substance-abuse treatment facility to be eligible for up to $75,000 in student debt relief. Part-time clinicians can apply to receive up to half that amount.

“We believe the program will expand access to substance use disorder treatment to help prevent overdose deaths,” said Israil Ali, director of the NHSC. “(It) will also strengthen the country’s behavioral health workforce and benefit communities that need those services.”

In 2017, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths was six times higher than 1999’s figure. Each day, 130 Americans die from an opioid overdose, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ali said the NHSC wants to provide student debt relief to 1,000 clinicians this year. While the deadline for applications for the 2019 program has passed, the NHSC plans to continue the program next year as well. “We hope to incentivize those providers who are currently in the pipeline and newly minted professionals to go into these underserved communities to support the substance use disorder epidemic,” Ali said.

Primary care physicians, behavioral and mental health doctors, licensed clinical social workers, and nurses are all welcome to apply.

Dr. Juleigh Nowinski Konchak, a family and community medicine doctor in Illinois, says the program will assist clinicians with the overwhelming financial burden caused by student loan debt. She has also seen the impact of the opioid crisis on underserved populations in Cook County, and hopes the program will expand the services offered by primary care doctors to include substance abuse treatment. “It’s really a nice opportunity to support our primary care doctors and to expand care,” she said.

Konchak works for Cook County Health, which has 10 facilities in Cook County. The health services system has been treating patients with substance-abuse disorders with a combination of prescription medications and behavioral health services for more than ten years. Last year, more than 5,000 patients sought help with addiction in one of its health centers. “We have a long history of serving a vulnerable population,” said Konchak. “And we’re seeing this population hit by this (opioid) crisis.” The number of opioid-related deaths has steadily increased in recent years in Illinois. More than 2,000 people had fatal overdoses in 2017, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Opioid-related deaths are disproportionately affecting less-educated people. One of the reasons is that these people may lack financial resources, social support, and access to treatment. The CDC recommends “intense attention and action” to combat the crisis, something the new NHSC program hopes to develop.

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