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Tuition grants for health care workers making legislative moves

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(The Center Square) – Medical professionals saddled with student loan debt may soon find relief in Pennsylvania if they are willing to relocate to one of the state’s more remote facilities.

The House Health Committee approved legislation intended to breathe life into a struggling medical system by incentivizing health care workers.

House Bill 2382 would establish grants of up to $250,000 for facilities to reimburse doctors, nurses, and midwives who choose to work a minimum of three years in a rural health care setting. The workers could use the money for, among other things, repaying student loans.

In Pennsylvania, rural settings account for 48 out of 67 counties, comprising about a quarter of the state’s total population.

“We are in the midst of a nationwide healthcare workforce emergency,” said the bill’s prime sponsor and the committee’s chair, Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-, Cambridge Springs. “This commonwealth does not currently have enough medical providers to meet Pennsylvania’s growing healthcare needs leaving rural communities’ access to care in a perilous state.”

Among the growing healthcare needs within the state are “diseases of despair,” as well as age-related challenges like Alzheimer’s and related disorders. Substance use and mental health disorders are major areas of concern in rural communities where economic opportunities have dwindled in recent years.

With higher numbers of residents living with disabilities and the broader aging population, legislators are turning to new models to fund and keep the doors open for rural facilities, but little can be done without the staff required to provide care.

Vacancy rates in rural hospitals for nursing support staff and nurses are 28% and 26% respectively, as compared to urban areas of the state which see rates of 19% and 14%. Rapp noted that 62 counties are currently considered full or partial healthcare shortage areas for primary care.

The bill emerged from a rural healthcare roundtable held in January. Rapp highlighted the multidimensional challenges rural communities face when it comes to accessing healthcare services. Increasing staffing is just one approach required to begin staunch the bleeding.

“The fact that you can actually have reimbursement is an enticement for you to decide to go to some of these areas,” said Rep. Tarik Khan, D-Philadelphia, who is himself a working nurse practitioner. He noted that many of his colleagues in the field sought out their specific positions because of the promise of reimbursement. “I’m hopeful that this is a positive step in getting more practitioners out into rural areas.”

The hope is that practitioners will not just head to rural areas for the three years required by the grant but choose to make a more permanent home there, helping to revive not just the healthcare system but also the economic and social prospects of these communities.

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