Bloomberg commits $100M to historically Black medical schools amid COVID-19 pressures

Saying he wants to help increase the number of Black doctors, former New York Mayor and businessman Michael Bloomberg announced $100 million in grants to be distributed to medical schools at historically Black universities.

The funds from Bloomberg Philanthropies will go toward "significantly reducing the debt burden" of about 800 students, many who are experiencing increased financial pressure amid COVID-19, officials said in an announcement about the grants. 

The funds will go to students at Meharry Medical College, Howard University College of Medicine, Morehouse School of Medicine and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates about 5% of practicing physicians in the U.S. are Black, while data show Black patients have better outcomes when treated by Black doctors, officials said in a statement. 

COVID-19 has further exposed these disparities. Black and Latino people overall have been three times as likely as whites to get the virus, a New York Times analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows. 

RELATED: Healthcare workers of color nearly twice as likely as whites to get COVID-19

“COVID-19 has been especially devastating for the Black community, and the scarcity of Black doctors practicing in Black communities is one reason for it,” said Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bloomberg LP, in a statement. “More Black doctors will mean more Black lives saved and fewer health problems that limit economic opportunity. But right now, the burden of student debt and lack of financial aid means that the shortage of Black doctors could get even worse."

This is the first investment of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Greenwood Initiative, an effort to increase generational wealth among Black families and address systemic underinvestment in Black communities, officials said.

The grant to the medical schools will allow them to provide scholarships up to $100,000 to nearly every medical student currently enrolled and receiving financial aid over the next four years. 

Each of the medical schools will determine the eligibility of their students currently enrolled and receiving financial aid for scholarships up to $100,000, or up to $25,000 for each year of medical school from 2021 through the academic year that ends in 2024. Students currently in years two, three and four of medical school will receive retro-active scholarships.

“Since studies have demonstrated that African-American patients are more likely to follow an African-American physician’s orders, particularly on preventive measures, this scholarship gift to help increase the number of Black doctors will be transformative in creating greater health in communities of color,” said David Carlisle, M.D., president and CEO of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. “It helps relieve the crushing burden of medical school student debt for low-income African-American students, particularly the great number who wish to set up a practice in medically under-resourced communities of color.”

The billionaire joins other wealthy individuals who have targeted donations to historically Black colleges and universities in recent months. 

In July, MacKenzie Scott, who is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' ex-wife, pledged more than $1.7 billion to several historically Black universities including Morehouse and Howard University. In June, Reed Hastings, the billionaire founder of Netflix, announced a $120 million gift to Black colleges. In May, billionaires Frank and Laura Day Baker announced a $1 million gift to Spelman College, a historically Black college in Atlanta, Georgia to cover the balances owed by nearly 50 students. 

RELATED: More U.S. medical schools are churning out more doctors, but residency slots don’t keep pace

And in 2019, Robert F. Smith—the billionaire founder of the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners—announced during the commencement speech at Morehouse that he was paying off the student loans for the entire graduating class. With nearly 400 graduates in that class, the gift is worth about $40 million.

It also comes amid a growing recognition of the role massive student debt may be having on the specialties chosen by med students and prompted major grants to medical schools in particular. 

In 2019, Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine announced it would provide free tuition to students who commit to practice primary care after their residency at its affiliated health system Geisinger Health. Last year, New York University’s medical school became the first to offer free tuition to all its students to encourage more primary care doctors. And, since then, others have come up with their own programs. For instance, Kaiser Permanente announced earlier this year it would offer free tuition to all the medical students in its first five graduating classes.

In July, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, introduced a bill that would aim to earmark $1 billion to help diversify medical schools to close the racial health gap.