[caption id="attachment_216269" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Muhammad H. Tahir, MD treats a patient at Bayhealth Hospital, Sussex Campus. The Dover-based health care system is one of many thinking about how to recruit and retain doctors as they expand in Sussex County. | PHOTO COURTESY BAYHEALTH[/caption]
DOVER — After years of workshopping among health care industry leaders, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services has officially launched a loan repayment program for primary care doctors.The Health Care Provider Loan Repayment Program allows for doctors, nurse practitioners, midwives, and physical assistants to receive up to $50,000 per year in loan repayment. In exchange, the health care professional must work in Delaware for at least two years.For practitioners interested in working at one of Delaware’s hospital systems, the facility must commit to provide a 50% match for the repayment. Health care systems looking to participate must accept Medicaid and Medicare.“We’re really excited for Delaware and its hospital systems, because this program really will put us at the top of the map when it comes to attracting talent,” said Wayne Smith, the president of the Delaware Healthcare Association, which represents the state’s hospitals. “We can’t thank our colleagues who worked to develop this program, as well as the legislative sponsors and the state for seeing it through. It is a new day for primary care practices in Delaware because of their work.”Applications for the first cohort are open until June 1, and the DHSS plans on at least three cohorts, in a rolling six-week period. The program is funded with at least $2 million, between an allocation from state lawmakers and a one-time donation from the Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Delaware.The program has enough funding for at least 20 providers, and the state has the option to award loan repayment each year that provider works in Delaware. As the program is designed, one provider could receive up to $200,000 in total loan repayment, if the state approves their annual application for a maximum of four years.Gov. John Carney has proposed another $1 million for the program in Fiscal Year 2023, demonstrating his commitment to see the program continue beyond the initial year.Back in 2020, the Delaware Healthcare Association and the Delaware Health Care Commission started searching for ways to recruit and retain health care providers. In 2018, there were 815 active primary care physicians in Delaware, according to a 2018 study commissioned by DHSS. Further findings show that Kent County physicians were 60% more likely to be active in the field five years from now, compared with 78% in Sussex County and 70% in New Castle County. Complicating matters further, Delaware is one of four states in the nation that does not have its own medical school, which further limits the talent pipeline.Rep. David Bentz (D-Christiana) sponsored House Bill 48 that created the Health Care Provider Loan Repayment Program, calling attention to the statewide doctor shortage and shoring up support to get it signed into law.“When it comes to health care, Delawareans deserve to be treated by highly trained professionals at medical facilities statewide,”Bentz said in a statement. “With this law, we can work toward recruiting and retaining top primary care doctors.”The Health Care Provider Loan Repayment Program makes Delaware one of the most competitive when it comes to loan repayment for medical providers. In comparison, 14 other states and Washington, D.C., offer similar programs for the future health care workforce — but Delaware is now among the few that offers a greater incentive to practice longer in the state.For example, Massachusetts offers $50,000 repaid for health care providers, based on a two-year contract. However, the award amount depends on the medicine practiced, as the program is open for dental and mental health professionals. Missouri offers up to $2,000 to nursing students who agree to work in a designated health care shortage area upon graduation.The average medical school debt is $201,490, according to a report from NerdWallet earlier this year. Nursing school debt ranges between $19,928 for an associate degree to $47,321 for a master’s degree.“It’s clear that we need to find ways to attract more primary care providers to practice in Delaware, and this state-sponsored program is a strategic way to do that,” DHSS Secretary Molly Magarik said in a statement. “We are grateful to Gov. Carney and to the General Assembly for their support of [this program].”Delaware does have a partnership, called Delaware Institute of Medical Education and Research(DIMER), with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson, where 20 slots are reserved for students from the First State. To encourage many of those students to return back to Delaware, the Health Care Provider Loan Repayment Program prioritized DIMER graduate applications.In the last few years, Delaware health care systems like Bayhealth have launched a residency program to attract new talent to their offices. TidalHealth, which has a Seaford hospital, is preparing to start its own internal medicine residency program, while Beebe Healthcare is preparing several areas of its own program after long running a nursing school.Beebe Healthcare President & CEO David Tam told the Delaware Business Times that in the past two years, the Sussex County health care system has hired nearly 100 providers and still is studying on what works best to bring the best professionals to Delaware.“We’re seeing people that are excited to move to Sussex County and work for an independent nonprofit community health system, and with creation of the R. Randall Rollins Center for Medical Education, continuing education and family residency will take place right here in Sussex County,” Tam said. “Beebe Healthcare is excited about the [loan repayment] program’s start as it can be another incentive for doctors to come to rural areas like Sussex County. “
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