Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, fields questions… (Arkasha Stevenson / Los…)
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visited a health clinic in downtown Los Angeles on Monday and announced more than $9 million in funding to help medical students repay school loans if they agree to work in underserved areas.
Sebelius said the program will encourage more students to pursue careers in family medicine and will help relieve a shortage of primary care doctors.
"Most Americans who live in underserved areas don't have access to basic care," she said during the visit to Eisner Pediatric and Family Medical Center. "It is not just a problem in some rural, isolated communities. It's a big problem in cities, like here in L.A."
Sebelius toured the Eisner clinic, which serves more than 26,000 patients each year, and took part in a panel discussion about community health clinics. Clinics nationwide received an influx of financial support from the federal health reform law, designed to improve quality of care and reduce costs.
In the past, Sebelius said that not enough attention was paid to workforce issues. But that has changed, and now there is more effort to expand that workforce, including training primary care doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
The loan repayment program, also funded by the federal law, is part of the National Health Service Corps and provides up to $120,000 to students who commit to spending three years as primary care doctors in underserved areas.
The National Health Service Corps, created in 1972, has tripled in size over the last three years. The program already provided loan repayment for medical residents, while the new effort reaches students who are still in medical school.
One of the recipients, Eric Schluederberg, a medical student at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, said he was originally interested in primary care because his father is a family physician. But he is also inspired by his fiancee, who has spina bifida, a birth defect believed to be preventable with proper prenatal care.
"It is part of the reason I want to be out there, helping women who just don't know," he said. "I want to be part of that."
Naomi Gordon-Walinksy, a doctor at the Eisner clinic, said the National Health Service Corps has helped her and other colleagues remain at the clinic.
"It's been a huge lift off my shoulders to be able to not worry about making the monthly loan payments," she said. "… It helps us stay committed to our work here."