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Oregon education loan program adds primary care providers to rural and underserved communities to help Oregon Health Plan clients

The state has announced the first providers in Oregon’s new Medicaid Primary Care Loan Repayment Program aimed at increasing the number of health professionals serving in rural and underserved areas.

Adding more primary providers, especially in rural and underserved areas, is essential to increase access to health care for Oregonians. It is expected that more than 250,000 additional Oregonians will join the Oregon Health Plan by 2016. Offering educational loan repayment is an incentive to attract providers to practice in these areas.

Aaron Lee, 37, a physician assistant, is one of the recipients of this program. He works at the Madras Medical Group.

“In a rural town, I can build relationships with my patients, and there is more of a continuity of care,” Lee says. “I care about smaller communities. I grew up in one. This program is a wonderful opportunity to stay in a small town and to make a commitment to something I believe in.”

Lee is from Redmond, which had about 6,000 residents when he was growing up and now has nearly 27,000. He always wanted to work in rural area, especially in Central Oregon, but like many medical providers, he has steep educational debt, so the lure of higher salaries in an urban area tempted him. The loan repayment program helps to make it more economically feasible for providers like Lee to practice in rural or underserved areas, including people who are covered by the Oregon Health Plan.

“We are working to make sure Medicaid clients have better access to primary care in all areas of our state,” said Tina Edlund, acting director of the Oregon Health Authority. “This loan repayment program is one way to make sure people get the health care they need.”

“This is exciting,” says Scott Ekblad, director of the Office of Rural Health at Oregon Health & Science University. “We must improve access to health care providers if we are going to improve access to care. This program is helping us reach that goal.”

Other awards were made to:

  • Rainy Davies, 36, a child psychiatrist who works at Options for Southern Oregon in Grants Pass. “I am exactly where I want to be -- helping patients and living in a small town,” Davies said. “Grants Pass has been a good fit.”
  • Matthew Keegan, 41, a family physician practicing at Clackamas County’s Sunnyside Health and Wellness Center in Clackamas, which serves mostly Oregon Health Plan patients. He has spent most of his career working in rural and underserved areas. “It has been wonderful to see that a lot of the patients who were uninsured now have insurance,” he said. “We’re able do more consistent and more preventive care.” Keegan also likes the loan repayment part of the program. “I have been trying to pay off my student loans for about 10 years, and I have hardly put a dent in them.”
  • Danielle Pang, 36, a dentist practicing at Multnomah County Health Department’s East County Health Center in Gresham. “I like working with patients that really need help. Many of our patients have been underserved for years,” she said. “I am so glad that for many, access to dental care is now possible.”
  • Daryl Ann Plotzker, 32, a family nurse practitioner and doctor of nursing practices student. She has worked at OHSU’s Richmond Walk-in Clinic in Portland since June 2013. “I am really excited to continue to work in this clinic,” Plotzker said. “The patients have so many different needs: sutures, fractures, immediate needs. But beyond those needs, we also try to get people established with a primary care provider for consistent care.”

The education loan repayment program is offering $3.6 million in loan repayments to eligible practitioners. About 35 to 40 additional health care providers are expected to be participants in this program.

Awardees receive 20 percent of their unpaid student debt, up to $35,000 per year for a minimum of three years, for a full-time participant and a maximum of five years, for a part-time participant. In exchange, participants agree to serve Medicaid and other patients in a qualifying practice site. There are qualifying sites in every Oregon county. They include rural hospitals, rural health clinics, federally qualified health centers and other clinical practices located in Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs). The Oregon Health Authority can determine other sites providing primary care to an underserved population.

Applications for both providers and practice sites are available on the OHSU Office of Rural Health website. Applications are accepted on an ongoing basis. Qualified providers include primary care physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, psychiatrists, dentists and expanded practice dental hygienists, clinical psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and marriage and family therapists. Specific qualifications and information about eligible practice sites can be found on the Office of Rural Health website. Second quarter awards will be made in June.

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