Doctors and health care workers must be granted student loan forgiveness during the COVID-19 pandemic

While millions of Americans are being told to stay home, doctors, nurses, and other health care providers are showing up to work every day to battle an invisible enemy—the deadly COVID-19 virus. With hospitals, doctors’ offices, and nursing homes facing personal protective equipment shortages, for health care providers, it is a daily choice between their own health and that of their patients. In fact, many health care workers have already died.

So, how is America going to take care of health care providers that are taking care of the nation?

The most recent $2 trillion-dollar stimulus package provides relief for many Americans who are out of work and corporations that are losing business. However, doctors and health care workers on the frontlines of this pandemic were noticeably left out. And it’s likely that the next piece of legislation will do the same. As lawmakers convene in Washington, D.C., it is imperative that they come up with a comprehensive plan to support doctors and health care workers during this pandemic. Many are advocating for hazard pay, which is undoubtedly warranted. However, a comprehensive plan would take it a step further and grant student loan forgiveness for doctors and health care workers.

Medical practices and health care centers have not been immune to pay cuts or financial losses during this crisis. There are petitions demanding fair compensation circulating online that have garnered thousands of physician and health care provider signatures. The hashtags #LoanForgiveness and #HazardPay are now trending on social media with several lawmakers expressing their support. As lawmakers discuss the next stimulus package, doctors and health care workers are wondering where we fit into the government’s economic response.

Many doctors— particularly early-career physicians —carry crushing student loan debt. For many of my colleagues and me, the inevitability of high student loan debt weighed heavily against the prospect of being able to do what we love— to care for the sick. This debt is not limited to a handful of doctors. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 75% percent of doctors graduated from medical school with student loan debt in 2018. The median medical school debt for doctors that same year was $200,000. Add to that accumulating interest, and over the course of a doctor’s career, this translates to an average loan repayment of $365,000 to $440,000.  To add insult to injury, once doctors start their careers, many do not receive tax credits on the thousands of dollars in student loan payments.

There are loan forgiveness programs designed to encourage eligible individuals to work in under-served and under-resourced areas. Take, for example, the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program. Under this federal program, teachers who agree to work at qualifying low-income schools are eligible for up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness. Other loan forgiveness programs—which have recently been threatened by proposed budget cuts—funnel much-needed personnel such as doctors, lawyers, and public service workers to under-resourced areas and encourage ongoing service in these high-need regions of the country. The COVID-19 health care landscape is just that—under-resourced and high-need.

To be sure, opponents may argue that during this pandemic, it is a doctor’s duty to care for patients. And in fact, most of us willingly showing up because we care about our communities, and this is what we have been trained to do. But, let’s take heed to the rising discontentment. As cardiologist Dr. Sandeep Jauhar reminded us, history had seen doctors refuse to treat patients when their health and the health of their families were at risk. For example, during the Ebola pandemic and early HIV/AIDS pandemic. Today, this could take the form of walkouts or doctors refusing to care for COVID-19 positive patients. This would be catastrophic.

With the CDC predicting an ongoing incline in the rise of cases over the next few weeks, it is crucial that policymakers include student loan forgiveness as part of the support for doctors and health care workers in the next iteration of COVID-19 legislation. It is both a fair and proven way to incentivize work in high-need environments. The U.S. is already facing a physician shortage—with projections estimating a shortage of 122,000 doctors by 2032. How America treats its doctors during this unprecedented time will have far-reaching implications many years down the road. Our government must be on the right side of history here and now. Because if frontline medical providers are not cared for during this pandemic, who will take care of America once it’s over?

Alani Gregory is an internal medicine physician and can be reached on Twitter @AGregoryMD

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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