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National Health Service Corps
National Health Service Corps
The National Health Service Corps (NHSC) offers loan repayment assistance to support qualified health care providers who choose to take their skills where they're most needed. Recently some NHSC scholars were asked to share their experiences with the program. Below are their thoughts:
My experience with the National Health Service Corps
I just finished making my last payment to my medical school student loan only 6 years after residency. This was only possible because of the National Health Service Corps. I have completed 5 years with the Corps and have less than a year left with them. I just got my last disbursement this week and paid the last of my student loan off. As a primary care doctor, I would have never been able to do this without the corp. I would have had to choose between slowly paying off my loans over 30 years or sacrificing all the goal I have like a bigger home and vacations to pay my loans off in a shorter period of time. With the Corps help, I could move on with my financial goals and still pay off this debt. This is definitely the good part of the Corps. Additionally, unlike employer base loan repayment programs, the Corp payments are not taxed.
Certainly there has been a price to pay for the Corps to discharge my debt. When I initially applied to the Corps in 2008, the process was very cumbersome. It took me weeks to complete the application material. I had to constantly check up to make sure my paperwork was being processed. I have had to continue that level of attention throughout the process to make sure I didn't miss deadlines and lose my benefits. Anyone who applies to the Corps needs to know the rules and intend to follow them. Among the more challenging rules is that they only allow 35 days (7 weeks) a year off from the clinic. This may seem like a lot of days but when you consider education leave, sick leave, holidays, and personal leave days, I have more time I can take than the Corps will allow. This has been the hardest part.
Overall the process and communication has improved compared to when I started. However, the application process still remains a bit difficult. Overall, I have been happy with the Corps. They still need to improve their process but for someone who is willing to keep their rules, it is a great option especially for primary care doctors and their lower incomes.
Thoughts on NHSC scholarships
I first learned about NHSC as a teenager growing up in a rural small town through a family friend who was fulfilling their service obligation. After experiences in college that convinced me that I wanted to pursue medicine with the goal of doing primary care focusing on underserved populations, I found myself looking into the NHSC scholarship program. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship prior to starting medical school, and I accepted it for four years. I pursued residency training in combined internal medicine pediatrics, and I am now starting my fourth year fulfilling my service obligation by working for the Indian Health Service in a rural community doing inpatient and outpatient primary care.
I have now had experience with the NHSC program for the past eleven years. Over this time, I have seen the program go through a transition, with the goal of becoming more user-friendly and supportive. When I first began, it was clear that I had an obligation to fulfill and consequences if anything prevented me from fulfilling that obligation. While that hasn't changed, the organization appears to have more recognition at this time of ideally placing participants in sites where they can meet the other obligations in their lives and be happy, in the hopes that they will stay longer than their service obligations.
At its heart, NHSC will put people where they are MOST needed. When I counsel people considering NHSC scholarship I emphasize this. It is important to realize that other potential career goals (e.g., academic positions, fellowships, etc) and personal goals (e.g., job possibilities for loved ones or specific geographic locations) will not always align with the job possibilities available when a scholar completes training and enters the job market. I am grateful that I am without the large amount of debt of many of my peers, which gives me a lot of freedom while I consider my future plans. However, I counsel potential NHSC scholars that if they are not completely committed to primary care and/or cannot anticipate being flexible with geographic locations and job requirements in the future, it is generally better NOT to take the scholarship and instead consider applying for NHSC loan repayment when the time comes.
Information about the NHSC program can be found at http://nhsc.hrsa.gov/index.html.