Hawaii lawmakers move on physician student loan forgiveness

The Hawaii Legislature is closer to student loan forgiveness for health care providers in hopes to stem the state’s physician shortage.

Health focus committees for the Hawaii House of Representatives and Senate both approved separate recommendations for the passing of two companion bills that offer continuation of student loan debt relief for healthcare professionals.

The state’s Senate Committee on Health and Human Services voted Wednesday to support the passing of SB 164 – a bill drafted by Democratic Senator Joy San Buenaventura – that seeks to continue funding for the Hawaii State Loan Repayment Program.

Using state funds matched dollar-for-dollar with federal endowments, the HSLRP helps to repay the educational loans for medical workers who agree to work at least two years at Hawaiian facilities affected by the healthcare labor shortage. Since the implementation of the program in 2012, it has provided debt repayment for 76 recipients, of which 80% continue to practice in Hawaii, according to the Legislature.

Meanwhile, the Hawaii House Committee on Health and Homelessness also approved a measure to support SB 164’s companion bill, HB 611, and increase the requested allocation for the HSLRP from $1 million to $1.5 million. House Bill 611, which has shared language with SB 164, was introduced in the state House by Democratic Representative and Committee Chair Della Au Belatti.

By design, both bills look at tackling Hawaii’s healthcare labor crisis. “Many Hawaii residents are unable to obtain timely and appropriate health care due to shortages of primary and behavioral health care professionals in the State,” the bills state. “These shortages not only threaten individual health, but the entire State’s health care system.”

To combat this shortage, the bills propose that by reducing student debt, more healthcare workers will be encouraged to remain in Hawaii.

“Reducing the tremendous burden of student debt will encourage more health professionals to continue working in underserved areas and thereby help reduce the pressing need for healthcare workers in those areas,” they say. “Therefore, the Department supports this bill as an effective strategy to address shortages in the healthcare workforce.”

The decisions by the committees to move the two bills forward followed Wednesday’s committee hearings and reviews of testimony showing support for the legislation from state, education and healthcare officials in Hawaii.

During the House committee meeting, Dr. Kelley Withy, a professor of family medicine and community health from the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine who serves as the director of the Hawaii State Loan Repayment Program, spoke of her support of HB661.

“This is what we have been doing all along with the federal matching,” Withy told members of the committee.

Both bills have support from several healthcare and state organizations as a way to address the physician shortage in Hawaii. The State Department of Health, the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, the University of Hawaii System, the Hawaii Substance Abuse Coalition, the Hawaii State Center for Nursing, the Hawaii Primary Care Association, the Hawaii Medical Association, Hawaii Pacific Health, the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, Kaiser Permanente, The Queen’s Health System, APTA Hawaii, and Hawaii American Nurses Association all wrote testimony in support of the bills.

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