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
• 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 at http://nhsc.hrsa.gov/
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
The NIH Loan Repayment Program
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
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
at http://nhscjobs.hrsa.gov/external/search/index.seam, which
allows you to find positions by discipline and geographic area.
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