04 Nov 2016

An Introduction to the NHSC Loan Repayment Program

An Introduction to the NHSC Loan Repayment Program

Federal loan-repayment program can help recent graduates pay back their increasingly massive student loans.

The NHSC program is part of the government's Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The program will help pay off your entire debt over as many years as it takes, provided you're working in an NHSC-approved site. The idea is that with your advanced degree, you'll give back to the communities that need it the most — and in exchange, the government will take care of your debt. Nearly 10,000 health professionals are enrolled in the corps at present and more than a quarter of those are mental health providers.

The experience can be incredibly rewarding and a win-win for all involved, says Becky Spitzgo, HRSA associate administrator and director of the NHSC.

The basic requirements are:

  • You must be a U.S. citizen.
  • You must be employed by an NHSC-approved clinic before you apply for the NHSC loan repayment program.
  • You must have an advanced degree from an accredited school and be licensed in the state in which you'll be an NHSC member.
  • As a mental health provider, you must be a health service psychologist (HSP), licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), psychiatric nurse specialist (PNS), marriage and family therapist (MFT), or licensed professional counselor (LPC). Many types of higher degrees in health care are eligible, including MD, DO, DDS, NP and others.
  • You cannot have consolidated other forms of loans (home equity, for example) and student loans.
  • You cannot have defaulted on a loan in the past.
  • You can't have a prior work commitment or scholarship that ties you to a particular location.

See the full list of requirements (PDF, 397KB).

One of the most important eligibility requirements is that you can't have consolidated loans, since this makes it almost impossible for the administrators to see where debt is coming from, says Spitzgo. "Loan vetting is the really challenging part of the process," she says. "Sometimes folks consolidate loans using home equity, and then we lose visibility into what the purpose of loans was. In those instances where we can't tell that the loan was for education, this can make loans ineligible."

Getting a job at an NHSC-approved site is the first step toward joining the program. Mental health clinics that wish to be considered for NHSC approval must be located in a Health Professional Shortage Area and meet the NHSC site requirements. Each approved site is given a HPSA score, which ranges from 1 to 25.

"If you're working at a clinic that has a HPSA score of 16 or higher, chances are good you may receive loan repayment based on our current funding levels," says Spitzgo. "When we evaluate applications, we start at the top, 25, and work our way down. Last year we were able to fund down to a HPSA score of 13."

Once you've been accepted into the program, you commit to it for a two-year period. During that time, if you're working full time in a clinic with a HPSA score of 14 or higher, the NHSC will pay $60,000 of your student loan debt. For scores of 13 and lower, the amount is $40,000. There's also an option for people to work part-time. Rather than communicating with the lender on your behalf, the NHSC gives you the funds directly, and you repay your lender. After the initial two years you must re-apply every year for an extension, but there's no limit on the time it takes to pay off your debt. Spitzgo says the average time to repay debt is about three to four years.

The program's benefits aren't just monetary. Much of its beauty is in the good it does for communities that may not have much access to mental health care, says Jonathan Leggett, PhD, an NHSC psychologist in Indiana. "Our culture's attitude toward mental health is changing, slowly, but it still takes specific work in individual communities," says Leggett, who grew up in a rural, underserved area himself. He says he's very grateful to be able to give back to a similar community as an adult. "The effort I've put into this community has really changed things there — the stigma is starting to fade, little by little."

The program's retention rate speaks for its effectiveness, says Spitzgo. "About 80 percent of the people who do the NHSC program stay in the clinic after they've paid off their debt," she says. "We have a high retention rate because working in this type of environment can be very fulfilling for the provider."

The NHSC application cycle opens in February. It is important to begin the process early, because you need to be employed at an NHSC-approved facility before applying. You can search for open positions using the NHSC search function, which allows you to find positions by discipline and geographic area.

By Alice G. Walton

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