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A new bill would forgive the student debt of health-care workers fighting coronavirus

A man holds a sign of appreciation up for nurses and doctors at the entrance to Mt. Sinai Morningside Hospital in New York City, Thursday, 23 April, 2020.
B.A. Van Sise/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Doctors, nurses and first responders on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic are being called "heroes." But some worry that giving essential workers this title without providing them with necessary support "sets them up to be sacrificed" and taken advantage of

Now, legislators across the country are proposing unique ways to repay those on the front lines.

On Tuesday, New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would eliminate the student debt of health-care workers treating patients with coronavirus.

"Frontline health workers are delivering care to the sickest patients and putting their own safety at great risk in order to keep doing their jobs," said Maloney in a statement. "And in return, I believe that we have an obligation to ensure that they are relieved of the debt they incurred to train for this critical work – in graduate degree programs or other professional certification. Health-care workers are worrying about their own health and how it will affect their families. They should not have to worry about their financial security after the crisis has passed. That is a burden that we can lift right now. And this bill will do that. It will help take care of the people taking care of all of us."

The Student Loan Forgiveness for Frontline Health Workers Act, co-signed by nine other House Democrats, would forgive the outstanding balance of interest and principal due on the federal and private student loans of qualifying frontline health-care workers. 

The bill defines a frontline health-care worker as someone who is "certified under federal or state law to provide health-care services and who provides COVID-related health-care services" including doctors, medical residents, medical interns, medical fellows, nurses, home health-care workers and mental health professionals. 

Importantly, the forgiven debt would not be counted as income. 

Doctors test hospital staff with flu-like symptoms for coronavirus (COVID-19) in set-up tents to triage possible COVID-19 patients outside before they enter the main Emergency department area at St. Barnabas hospital in the Bronx on March 24, 2020 in New York City.
Misha Friedman | Getty Images

While doctors are more likely than any other profession to be in the top 1% of earners they are also among those with the largest volumes of student debt. 

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, four years of medical school cost the class of 2019 about $250,000 at public universities and $330,180 at private universities. Approximately 73% of med school graduates have student debt, owing an average of $201,490. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, graduate nursing students typically owe between $40,000 and $54,999 in student debt.

Maloney is not alone in her efforts to provide additional benefits to essential workers. 

On April 20th, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed that frontline health-care workers should earn 50% more during the pandemic as a form of hazard pay. 

On April 29th, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a program, inspired by the benefits provided to veterans following World War II, that would provide a tuition-free higher education for an even wider range of essential workers, including those working in hospitals, nursing homes and grocery stores as well as those providing child care to critical infrastructure workers, manufacturing PPE, protecting public safety, picking up trash or delivering supplies.

The program "is our way of saying 'thank you' to those who have risked their lives on the front lines of this crisis. This program will ensure tuition-free college opportunities and give these dedicated Michiganders an opportunity to earn a technical certificate, associate degree or even a bachelor's degree," says Whitmer in a statement. "I want to assure all of our workers we will never forget those of you who stepped up and sacrificed their own health during this crisis. You're the reason we're going to get through this."

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