A plea for nurse practitioners

By Susie Bullard

In only a few weeks, COVID-19 has decimated the economy of Ohio and inflicted deep wounds upon the healthcare system. Access to routine healthcare for the uninsured population is not a new issue but it is a problem that is likely about to get worse. Community based Federally Qualified Healthcare Clinics and free and charitable healthcare clinics in Ohio need a helpful option to incentivize nurse practitioners to work for them. This urgent need is required for community healthcare clinics and free medical clinics to be able to accommodate an anticipated upcoming spike in patient volume. Expanding the Ohio Loan Repayment Program to include nurse practitioners as eligible applicants is one way to help remedy this issue.

As job losses are expected to rise and record unemployment figures keep dominating headlines, more Ohioans are anticipated to lose their employer sponsored healthcare plans. An influx of uninsured patients coupled with future uncertainties related to COVID-19 are potential factors that may overwhelm non-profit community clinics as well as free and charitable healthcare clinics. Community healthcare and free medical clinics have done their best to manage the recruitment of qualified practitioners, but state legislators could offer a lifeline to them by including nurse practitioners to be able to apply for the Ohio Loan Repayment Program.

Currently, this referenced Ohio based loan repayment program is only open to physicians, dentists, and registered dental hygienists who work in a federally designated Health Professional Shortage Area. This program is not available to nurse practitioners. Albeit, nurse practitioners can apply for loan assistance through the Ohio Substance Use Disorder Professional Repayment Program by choosing to work in a substance abuse treatment clinic. As helpful and valuable as this option may be, the substance abuse loan repayment program is not an incentivizing tool for medically focused community and free healthcare clinics trying to recruit nurse practitioners. The competitive recruitment strategies between the private healthcare sector versus non-profit organizations are incomparably uneven in nature.

Student loan debt is one of the nation’s leading sources of debt. Additional types of loan repayment programs for nurse practitioners do exist but can be competitive. Presently, nurse practitioners can apply for assistance through a federal loan forgiveness program that’s available through the National Health Service Corps if they work in a designated Health Profession Shortage Area. Still though, the healthcare clinic must meet the criteria to first become an approved site under the National Health Service Corp. Additionally, nurse practitioners must then apply and compete for loan assistance at a national level.

Layers of bureaucratic processes can impose limits and barriers for community healthcare and free medical clinics needing to entice practitioners for employment in an already competitive healthcare market. Why not review the opportunity for nurse practitioners to participate in Ohio’s current State Loan Repayment Program that is offered to physicians, dentists, and dental hygienists?

In many of the free and charitable clinics in Ohio, such as Health Partners Clinic in Troy, Ohio, nurse practitioners are often the primary discipline providing treatment services the patients. By increasing and incentivizing the number of practitioners who are willing to work in a formally designated under-served area, community access to healthcare services will improve.

On a local level, there is a notable healthcare disparity regarding the availability of primary healthcare providers. According to County Health Rankings data for 2020, the current practitioner to patient ratio is 2,020:1 for Miami County. By helping to expand access to healthcare, community medical clinics can improve overall health outcomes for Ohioans by offering valuable preventative medical services and disease management.

Like all new college graduates, those trained in the healthcare sector are eager to begin gainful employment and repay their student loans. The Ohio Loan Repayment Program currently offers up to $50,000 in non-taxable assistance to physicians, dentists, and registered dental hygienists in return for a full-time two-year commitment of service in a Health Professional Shortage Area, such as a free medical clinic.

The anticipated looming crisis in the rise of uninsured Ohioans and the shortage of healthcare practitioners endangers the intrinsic well-being of our communities. Expanding the Ohio Loan Repayment Program to include nurse practitioners will increase the opportunities for healthcare care clinics to recruit highly qualified nurse practitioners and ultimately provide more care. Aligning and improving the availability of community healthcare services will result in fewer hospitalizations and will enhance the well-being and health of many more under-served and medically uninsured Ohioans.