National Health Service Corps participation hits new heights

More than 10,000 doctors, nurses and physician assistants are working in underserved areas, but demand and interest still outstrip funding.

By Doug Trapp — Posted Oct. 21, 2011

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Even though the number of National Health Service Corps participants has nearly tripled since 2008, the program still has more applicants and service opportunities than it can fund, according to the Dept. of Health and Human Services.

For the first time, more than 10,000 clinicians -- physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and others -- are receiving National Health Service Corps loan repayment or scholarships for providing care to patients in medically underserved areas, HHS announced on Oct. 13. That's up from about 3,600 participants in 2008.

The increase in participation was possible largely because of $1.5 billion in support in the health system reform law and an additional $300 million in the 2009 economic stimulus package.

"These awards help ensure that underserved communities across the country have access to quality health care both today and in the future," said Mary Wakefield, PhD, RN, administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration, which manages the health corps.

The vast majority of corps participants receive loan repayments, which are limited to $60,000 for two years of service or $170,000 for a five-year commitment. Scholarships pay for up to four years of tuition, fees and other costs in exchange for two to four years of service.

Demand to take part in the program is strong, according to HHS. The number of applicants has increased more than fivefold since 2008. But the health corps scholarship program can fund only 20% of qualified applicants, said HRSA spokeswoman Michelle Daniels.

One of the NHSC's main goals is to encourage physicians to continue serving in these communities after they have fulfilled their commitment. "People won't live too long in a community without access to care, so a doctor can help stabilize rural communities," said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

More information about the NHSC is available online (link).

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