House Republicans called the proposal an intrusive mandate. (Getty Images)
The state is expanding its student loan repayment program, a critical recruiting tool for the community mental health centers and providers who work with low-income people. And there’s hope good budget news this year will allow even more expansion.
Currently, certain drug and alcohol counselors, mental health workers, nurse practitioners, and several other health care professionals are eligible for between $25,000 and $75,000 in loan repayment in exchange for a three-year work commitment at a site serving vulnerable and low-income people.
Health care advocates have said the ability to offer loan repayment has been invaluable in the current workforce shortages and necessary increase in mental health care across the state.
Alisa Druzba, administrator of the State Loan Repayment Program, said Thursday registered nurses in primary care settings, private dentists, and behavioral health providers who are still working toward their license will now be eligible as well. To qualify, they have to work with patients who cannot pay or have Medicaid or Medicare.
Up to 10 registered nurses and 10 pre-licensed mental health workers would be eligible for the benefit.
Druzba said expanding eligibility to pre-licensed behavioral health workers will be especially valuable to community mental health care centers that can’t compete with private practice salaries. “What we hear is these centers are a training ground and people leave once they have their license,” she said. “This will be an incentive for them to stick around past getting their license.”
There are currently approximately 75 people receiving loan repayment money.
Thanks to a significant increase in funding in 2019, the program was on track to expand to even more critical-shortage professions, including school psychologists who work with students insured by Medicaid and hospitalists who treat patients during their hospital stays. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, the state transferred $4 million of the program’s $6.5 million to the state’s general fund for COVID-19 expenses. When federal aid arrived, the state returned the $4 million to the program. But Druzba has been reluctant to spend it because she does not yet know if the program must return it at the end of the fiscal year in June, when unspent money is typically returned to the state.
If Druzba learns she can hold onto the money, she will extend eligibility to those additional professions.
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