50 Years of Impact: The National Health Service Corps and the PA Workforce
Throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the critical importance of a sufficient supply of well-trained health providers, particularly in historically underserved communities, has received renewed national attention. While COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on the issues of workforce shortages and maldistribution, however, federal and state policies to promote access to care have been a long-standing priority for PAEA’s advocacy efforts. One major component of PAEA’s advocacy agenda is support for the National Health Service Corps, one of the largest federal investments in health workforce distribution, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year.
In response to significant primary care physician shortages in the 1950s and 1960s, the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) was created in 1972 to provide financial assistance to clinicians to reduce education-related debt in exchange for a service commitment in a health professional shortage area. Originally a small program consisting of less than 200 clinicians nationwide, the NHSC has grown significantly since its inception, eventually supporting nearly 20,000 current and future clinicians, including over 1,800 PAs and PA students as of late 2021. This growth was made possible in part through the sustained advocacy of the PA education community, which resulted in an $800 million infusion of funding for the National Health Service Corps as part of the American Rescue Plan Act in early 2021.
As funding for the NHSC continues to expand through ongoing advocacy, it is crucial that all PA students and graduates be aware of the opportunities available to reduce the burden of student debt while simultaneously expanding access to care in underserved communities. The following programs under the NHSC are available to assist PA students and graduates interested in serving patients in need:
The NHSC Scholarship Program provides direct support to health professions students for tuition and fees, other educational costs, and monthly living expenses. In exchange for a full year of financial support, NHSC scholars commit to a minimum of two years of full-time service at a qualifying practice setting. The application timeframe for the NHSC Scholarship Program typically occurs in the spring with the 2021 cycle being open between March and May.
Students to Service Loan Repayment Program
The NHSC Students to Service (S2S) Program provides loan repayment assistance to students in the final year of their educational program. Originally created in 2012 to address acute physician and dentist shortages, eligibility for the program was expanded to PA students last year following advocacy conducted by PAEA and AAPA. In exchange for a three-year, full-time service commitment or a six-year, half-time commitment in a health professional shortage area, participants are eligible to receive up to $120,000 in repayment aid. The application timeframe for the last Students to Service cycle was open between August and December of 2021.
Other Federal Loan Repayment Programs
Beyond the S2S loan repayment program, the NHSC also operates a number of other loan repayment options for practicing PAs to expand access to primary care services, address workforce shortages in rural communities, and reduce unmet need for substance use disorder care. Participants in these programs can obtain between $25,000 and $100,000+ in loan repayment assistance depending upon the program and duration of service. The application timeframe for all of these programs is currently open through February 3.
State Loan Repayment Programs
In addition to programs directly administered on a federal basis, the NHSC also provides support to loan repayment programs designed and administered at the state level. Eligibility for state-based loan repayment programs, as well as maximum award amounts, are determined by each state based upon their unique workforce needs, but the vast majority of states allow practicing PAs to participate. Application timeframes vary amongst states with some states accepting applications on a rolling basis and others accepting applications for a defined period each year.
Members and students interested in additional information on the National Health Service Corps are invited to contact Tyler Smith at tsmith@PAEAonline.org.