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HRSA Loan Repayment Program to Close Opioid Treatment Gaps

A student loan repayment program from HHS and HRSA aims to close opioid treatment gaps and improve care access in rural or underserved areas.

care access gaps opioid

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- A new program from the Health Services and Resources Administration (HRSA) aims to fill opioid treatment access gaps in medically underserved areas.

The National Health Service Corps Substance Use Disorder Workforce Loan Repayment Program was announced at the end of 2018 as a core part of the Department of Health & Human Services’ (HHS’) efforts to address the opioid crisis.

Simply put, the program will offer student loan repayment for providers who practice on the frontlines of the opioid crisis in underserved areas. Interested clinicians have the option of committing to a three-year service option that can be completed on a full-time or half-time basis.

Those working full-time for three years may receive $75,000 in student loan repayments. For part-time service over a three-year span, clinicians may receive up to $37,500 in student loan repayment.

HRSA has also announced the NHSC Loan Repayment Program, geared to filling care access gaps in medical, dental, and mental healthcare areas. Clinicians may commit two years of service on a full-time or part-time basis. Those working full-time for two years may receive $50,000 in student loan repayments, or $25,000 for working part-time for two years.

Ideally, these programs will help fill patient care access gaps that persist in medically underserved areas. Patients living in rural regions and areas that are otherwise medically underserved face a unique set of social factors that make them at high risk for an opioid misuse disorder and other chronic illnesses, according to Rural Health Hub.

These individuals face social determinants of health such as low educational attainment, poverty, high unemployment, high-risk behaviors, and isolation that may make them likely to develop a substance use disorder.

What’s more, these areas tend to have fewer resources for addressing SUD, especially when it comes to medical treatment access. There are fewer detox and other recovery services in remote areas, the Rural Health Hub explained.

Rural regions are likewise seeing provider shortages in all areas of medical care, not just SUD care. The clinicians who do practice in rural areas often lack the authorizations to administer SUD interventions – only 60 percent of physicians in rural areas are authorized to prescribe MAT treatment buprenorphine, for example.

On the whole, the new HRSA program is a clinical workforce reallocation program aimed at improving patient care access for SUD treatment, according to HRSA Administrator George Sigounas, MD, PhD.

“By strengthening the health workforce, HRSA is working to ensure that there are enough qualified health care clinicians to treat patients living with substance use disorder,” Sigounas wrote in a post.

“Without these clinicians, many patients might never have access to the resources they need to help them recover,” he continued. “The current opioid crisis is daunting, but the new NHSC loan repayment program will help us make strides in this public health challenge. I am grateful to the clinicians who will apply and are looking to make a positive impact on patients, caregivers, and hard-hit communities throughout the country.”

As noted above, the new HRSA program is an example of a workforce reallocation model that could help close gaps in care in rural or otherwise medically underserved areas.

The issue at hand in these regions is a growing provider shortage. As patients travel significant distances to visit a provider, they continue to encounter problems associated with accessing a clinician.

Some government programs have proposed incentives to attract providers to these underserved regions, including student loan repayment, although few of these programs have gained much notoriety.

This latest HRSA program could serve as an effective proving ground for using student loan repayment programs in exchange for service in a medically underserved. In the future, this type of program could apply to other specialties such as primary care or family medicine.

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