A new deal: $75K in loan repayment to doctors in exchange for opioid treatment in underserved areas

A new program hopes to be the answer to two problems: the need for doctors to repay their hefty student loans and the need to increase access to opioid treatment in underserved communities.

To do just that, the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) launched a new federal program that will give $75,000 in loan repayment funds to doctors and other healthcare professionals who offer opioid addiction assistance in underserved areas of the country.

The new student loan repayment program got underway in December as an initiative to combat the country’s opioid crisis by increasing access to opioid and substance use disorder treatment in communities where patients struggle to find physicians who can help them.

Healthcare clinicians who are qualified to provide medication-assisted treatment and other substance use disorder treatment services can apply to receive up to $75,000 in student loan repayment in exchange for serving for three years in an urban or rural underserved community to help address what has become an urgent public health problem.

The program will improve access to care in high-need communities, and doctors or other qualified healthcare professionals have until Feb. 21 to apply, said NHSC Director Luis Padilla, M.D., in an interview with FierceHealthcare.

Luis Padilla
Luis Padilla, M.D. (Courtesy of NHSC)

NHSC, a program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), provides scholarships and student loan repayment to healthcare clinicians in return for their service in communities in need.

It has already received over 1,000 applications for funds under its newest program and plans to make 1,100 awards in the next two years, Padilla said.

The program will give priority to doctors who have a so-called DATA 2000 waiver which allows qualified physicians to prescribe buprenorphine and similar drugs to treat patients with opioid addiction in office and treatment settings beyond the traditional methadone clinic. Others who will receive priority include those working in an opioid treatment program or those who are master's-level substance use disorder counselors.

In addition to physicians, others eligible for the loan repayment program include nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, physician assistants, behavioral health professionals, substance use disorder counselors and registered nurses.

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Jonathan Wells, M.D., who works at a clinic in Seattle, Washington, said he sees a clear need for more clinicians to help addicted patients get off of opioids. In the last week, he’s seen five or six new patients who have sought treatment from him at the Neighborcare Health at High Point clinic where he is the site medical director. Last year, Neighborcare treated over 300 people who sought prescriptions for buprenorphine to help beat their addiction.

Jonathan Wells
Jonathan Wells,M.D. (Courtesy of
Neighborhood Health)

“It’s everywhere. It’s a big problem,” said Wells, who went to work at Neighborcare when he graduated from residency in 2014 and has benefited from an NHSC loan repayment program to help pay back the just under $200,000 in loans he had from his medical education.

There’s a wide range of people seeking treatment for opioid addictions, he said in an interview. Patients include older adults who suffer from chronic pain and developed an addiction to their painkillers, IV drug users, homeless adults and young people trying to break their addiction before it ruins their careers.

For those doctors with a passion to help care for the underserved, the grants can help provide an additional incentive to work in underserved communities, he said, hoping the new loan program that targets substance use disorders can increase access to treatment. The grants also require a time commitment, and that helps the clinic retain doctors, which is great for patients who develop a relationship with their provider, he said.

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Neighborcare Health treats 75,000 patients in its 27 medical, dental and school-based health centers and also has an extensive homeless and housing program, where the healthcare organization provides a lot of medication-assisted treatment for opioid use and other substance use disorders, Wells said.

The new loan repayment program is intended to further boost the ranks of providers fighting the opioid epidemic across the country, said Padilla. Funding was approved as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018.


To apply for NHSC’s Substance Use Disorder Workforce Loan Repayment Program, doctors and other clinicians must be working in or have accepted employment at a healthcare facility that has been designated by HRSA as an NHSC-approved substance use disorder site. NHSC will make its awards through Sept. 30.