Federal program expands assistance to health care professionals

Affordable Care Act adds $290 million in scholarship and loan repayment funds

  • As seen in a security mirror, Dennis Cherot, president of Total Health Care, center, leads Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, left, and others on a tour of the west Baltimore healthcare provider.
As seen in a security mirror, Dennis Cherot, president of Total… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
November 22, 2010|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore native Dr. Sherell Mason knew she wanted to return to her hometown to provide community medical care, but the scholarship and loan repayment she received through the National Health Service Corps made that decision a lot easier.

Now, more medical, dental and mental health care professionals will be able to take advantage of financial assistance through the federal program, thanks to an infusion of $290 million through the Affordable Care Act, announced Monday in West Baltimore.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius toured Total Health Care, a community health center in West Baltimore's Upton neighborhood, on Monday with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and John P. Sarbanes.

"From the start, we knew in addition to making sure Americans could get affordable health insurance, we also needed to look at the provider pipeline, making sure there were enough doctors, nurses, physician assistants, dentists and other health care professionals to provide the care that was needed," Sebelius said.

About 7,500 clinicians — 99 in Maryland — now serve as part of the nearly 40-year-old corps nationwide, which had previously received a boost in funding through the federal stimulus program.

But the additional money from health care reform will attract more skilled workers, bringing the total to nearly 11,000 by the end of 2011 to positions in rural and urban areas where there are shortages — a problem expected to increase as more Americans gain access to health care.

Starting Monday, doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and mental health professionals such as marriage therapists and licensed professional counselors can enter the new application cycle for the loan repayment program, and receive up to $60,000 for a two-year commitment to working in an underserved community.

Professionals can receive more money for signing up longer — as much as $170,000 for five years. They will also be able to serve part time or get credit for teaching other clinicians, said Mary Wakefield, administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration. The program also allows students to apply for scholarships in exchange for working in selected health areas after they graduate.

Mason, 37, who graduated from City College, said the service corps also creates an incentive for the best doctors to consider primary care.

"Working in community health is not a cakewalk," she said. "Frankly, it can be daunting and overwhelming for providers, especially a new provider. But not having to worry about money can help you sort of focus on your overall goal."

She feels the incentives will help reduce the high turnover rates among community health centers.

Her mentor, Dr. Bernard Abbott, worked at the South Baltimore Family Health Center for the National Health Service Corps from 1983 through 1986, and then stayed on staff. In 27 years, he has cared for three generations of patients and now serves as the health center's medical director.

"Once I got to the South Baltimore Family Health Center, I realized I was blessed to be there," he said.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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