State loan repayment programs threatened

2009 03 26 13 53 43 707 Dollar Sign 70

As recession-battered U.S. states look for way to trim their budgets, some are eying programs that will affect dental students now and in the future.

Virginia has already canceled a $325,000 program that provided scholarships and loan repayment assistance to students who agreed to practice in underserved areas.

“I don't know if and when we will have funding again.”
— Elizabeth Barrett, D.M.D., M.S.P.H.,
     oral health promotion unit manager,
     Virginia Department of Health

"I don't know if and when we will have funding again," said Elizabeth Barrett, D.M.D., M.S.P.H., oral health promotion unit manager for the Virginia Department of Health.

The federal government is ramping up its own similar program, the National Health Service Corps (NHSC). Last week, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that her department would use $200 million from the stimulus package to double the size of the corps.

The program currently has 956 vacancies for dentists willing to practice in underserved communities, paying "competitive salaries" plus $50,000 toward loan repayment.

It's unclear, though, whether the NHSC positions can replace what the states are offering. For example, the federal jobs are for "fully trained health professionals," while many of the state programs offer help to students still in dental school, thus potentially increasing the number of dentists. Some studies suggest there aren't enough dentists now to meet the country's needs.

Last year, the Virigina program paid for three $17,736 scholarships for Virginia Commonwealth University dental students. It also provided 21 dentists with loan repayment assistance in amounts ranging from $5,314 to $16,260.

In exchange, the students agreed to practice in underserved areas and accept Medicaid patients. "It's intended to provide care in areas of the state that are really needing care," Dr. Barrett said.

Oregon, too, is considering cuts to a program that is currently paying two dentists each $20,000 a year in loan repayment in return for a three- to five-year commitment to serve in a remote, rural part of the state, said Rachel Cummings of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission.

Loan assistance in Maryland may be in jeopardy as well, according to a report by the New York Times. The program there depends on annual state appropriations.

Copyright © 2009

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