Government program will pay off $75,000 worth of student debt for health care workers taking on the opioid epidemic

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A new federal program is hoping to address two of the greatest challenges the U.S. is currently facing, an opioid epidemic that kills 130 Americans every day and a student debt crisis that has roughly 44 million Americans on the hook for a collective $1.56 trillion in student loans.

The National Health Service Corps (NHSC) loan repayment program wants to address both of these issues head on by offering to help pay back student loans for health care providers treating substance use disorders in underserved, high-need areas. The program offers clinicians up to $75,000 for three years of full-time service at a healthcare facility that has been designated by HRSA as an NHSC-approved substance use disorder site or up to $37,500 over three years for part-time workers.

The opioid epidemic "is a significant burden on our country and if you mass it up per year, per year more Americans die from opioid use than died in the Vietnam War," Dr. Luis Padilla, Associate Administrator for the Bureau of Health Workforce and Director of the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) tells CNBC Make It. "It really requires a significant federal investment to address this opioid epidemic, and that's why Congress appropriated an additional $225,000,000 to address this through the National Health Service Corps, specifically for substance use disorder and opioid use disorder treatment and services."

Padilla oversees more than 40 programs and a budget of over $1 billion. The funds he mentions are just part of a sweeping legislative package passed by Congress, the Senate and President Trump in 2018.

US life expectancy drops again as opioid deaths and suicide rates rise
US life expectancy drops again as opioid deaths and suicide rates rise

A wide range of healthcare providers are eligible for the program, including physicians, nurse practitioners, midwives, physician assistants, behavioral health professionals, substance use disorder counselors, registered nurses and pharmacists.

For years the government has used incentives like student debt repayment as a way to encourage health care professionals to serve high-needs areas. Jobs in these communities often pay lower-than-average salaries and include unique obstacles.

"Currently we have what we call 'health professional shortage areas' across the country, and there are thousands of those designations across the country," says Padilla. "There's a large need not just for substance use disorder clinicians, but also primary care, dental and mental health services. The need was present before this epidemic started. It's just exacerbated now."

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