Texas physicians ask for restored funding to loan repayment program

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A bill in the Texas legislature would increase the maximum amount of funding available to physicians who participate in the Texas Physician Education Loan Repayment Program. 

The program aims to encourage new physicians to practice medicine in an area designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a Health Professional Shortage Area. It helps pay their student loans in exchange for a four-year commitment to serve in these areas, such as rural communities and community health centers. They must also care for patients enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). According to legislators, in the past five years, the program has enrolled more than 750 physicians.  

However, physicians are worried this program won’t be as helpful with the pool of funds set aside shrinking over the last several years. According to the Texas Academy of Family Physicians, since 2010, some of the funds have been diverted for other use.

Senate Bill 998 would increase the maximum amount of funding available for each physician in the program by $20,000. Currently, eligible physicians can get up to $160,000 to help with student loan payments. This bill would increase the total amount to $180,000. 

Debt continues to be an issue for medical students, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. An analysis published by the organization in 2018 showed around 75 percent of medical students from public and private universities graduated with debt. 

“As those education costs continue to climb, so does the average debt new physicians carry as they set out to start their career,” Sen. Pete Flores, R-San Antonio, told his colleagues on the Senate Higher Education Committee Wednesday. 

“The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reports that physicians utilizing the Physician Education Loan Repayment Program have an average debt load of $200-$300,000 dollars,” he added.

Flores is one of the authors of Senate Bill 998, along with Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D- McAllen. He listed several statistics that painted a bleak picture of the physician shortage in the state he hopes this legislation can help with.

“Texas ranks 47th among states with the ratio of primary care physicians to total population,” he said.

Karen Welch, associate director of primary care at CommUnityCare, a federally-qualified community health center in Travis County, knows the reality of student loan debt for physicians. She is currently participating in the Physician Education Loan Repayment Program.

“That number doesn’t surprise me at all,” she said.

Karen Welch's graduation photo. (Courtesy: Karen Welch)

Welch, who graduated from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, recently received the first installation for her loan repayment. She learned about the need for physicians helping underserved populations in Texas through her experience with the student-run clinic at UTMB. 

“We would have patients come into UTMB a lot that didn’t have funding and not having funding is limiting to being able to address health,” she said. “I’m big in prevision. People wouldn’t come to see their doctor because they didn’t have health coverage.”

Patients foregoing medical care because they can’t afford it doesn’t just affect the individual, she said.

“It’s their family,” she said. “It’s their workplace and all the people that they touch in the community.”

Karen Welch is the associate director of primary care at CommUnityCare. (Steffi Lee/Nexstar Broadcasting)

She says she’s grateful for the loan repayment program, because without it, the opportunity to serve at CommUnityCare wouldn’t be possible. She works on a lot of prevention issues and her main focus is patient care.

“We are the catch system in Travis County,” she said. “We are the people that get the privilege of caring for our underserved population.”

Welch views the proposal to increase funding as a window of opportunity to help physicians as well as parts of Texas in need.

“If we are able to provide medical care to all of our residents, people who are out living in rural areas and people who are living in underserved communities, then we have a healthier population,” she said. “Who doesn’t benefit from having a healthier population?”

The companion bill filed in the House passed 130-17 earlier this month, with one lawmaker present, but not voting. 

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