National health program triples in size

A government program that helps medical professionals cover the cost of their education if they practice in underserved areas has nearly tripled in size, federal officials announced on Thursday.

The National Health Service Corps, which received $1.5 billion in funding from the 2010 health care reform law, has increased from 3,600 clinicians in 2008 to more than 10,000 this year. Significant funding from the health care law, the 2009 stimulus bill, and fiscal 2011 dollars helped increase the size of the loan-repayment and scholarship program.

"When you don't have access to primary care, small health problems grow into big ones," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on a conference call. "Most of these providers graduate with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans, and it is very difficult to pay off while doing this important work."

Since 2008, HHS has awarded 5,418 loan-repayment awards, totaling $253 million, and 247 scholarships, which cover tuition, totaling $46 million. HHS estimates that the increase in the program will deliver care to an additional 7 million Americans.

Even with the growth in the program, Health Resources and Services Administration chief Mary Wakefield said there are underserved areas of the country that qualify for National Health Service Corps members, but there is not enough money to fund providers there.

"It is a significant challenge," Wakefield said. "We have more sites that are designated or eligible than we have clinicians. We also have, on the flip side, more students applying to National Health Service Corps than we have availability" of funding, Wakefield said.

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