Loan Forgiveness Could Attract Health Professionals To Rural Areas

Rural Minnesota is short of medical professionals, and many health advocates are lining up behind a proposal to partially forgive student loans of graduates who practice in rural areas.

“This can bring needed resources to our rural and frontier communities,” Shauna Reitmeier of Northwestern Mental Health Center in Crookston told a Senate committee Wednesday before members unanimously approved a loan forgiveness bill.

Several other committees must consider the bill before it reaches a full Senate vote.

Dr. Sarah Eisenschenk, who grew up near Avon, Minn., said she plans to locate in rural Minnesota once she finishes her residency. She will face more than $200,000 of school debts, she said, and a loan forgiveness program “will certainly influence my decisions.”

State Sen. Greg Clausen, D-Apple Valley, is the sponsor of the Senate Democrat’s third highest priority bill, one to expand the current medical professional loan forgiveness program.

“We are not keeping pace with workforce needs,” Clausen said.

While doctors, dentists and pharmacists are among those who can get loans forgiven now, the Clausen bill adds mental health professionals, public health nurses and dental therapists to the list. The senator said the addition would provide another 60 professionals to rural Minnesota.

Existing loan forgiveness provisions would get more funding, enough for 280 other medical professionals to receive loan help.

The Clausen bill would provide $3 million a year for the loan forgiveness program.

Mark Schoenbaum of the Minnesota Health Department said that the federal government designates “almost the entire state” as underserved by mental health professionals, dentists and primary care doctors, especially in rural areas with some in the inner cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Existing loan forgiveness programs that are more limited than what Clausen proposes show that the concept “does fairly convincingly attract medical professionals to the locations they are most needed,” Schoenbaum said.

Several people testifying to the committee urged Clausen to expand his bill to include more health professionals.

Also Wednesday, a state Health Department report indicated that immigrant doctors are not being well used to serve primary medical care, especially in areas where doctors are in short supply.

A task force that studied the situation since July reported that doctors from other countries “would help with increasingly urgent policy issues, such as a physician shortage, an aging population, persistent health disparities, the needs of a diversifying population and mounting health costs.”

Up to 400 unlicensed immigrant doctors live in Minnesota, the report indicated. Most are trained as primary care physicians, but they are not allowed to practice in Minnesota.

Besides providing more doctors for Minnesotans who are underserved, the report said that immigrant doctors could lower state costs millions of dollars a year by catching health issues earlier than happens now with a doctor shortage.

The task force suggested that health leaders work on ways to get immigrant doctors licensed in the state.

“This task force has thought creatively about this problem and brought us feasible and groundbreaking strategies that could fortify our physician workforce for years to come,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said.