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Celebrating 10,000-plus National Health Service Corps Clinicians on Corps Community Day

HRSA Administrator Mary K. Wakefield, PhD, RN, at Maria de los Santos Community Health Center in Philadelphia on National Health Service Corps Corps Community Day, October 13, 2011.

I’m delighted to be here – especially this week, a week that, from my vantage point, is really great for a couple of reasons.

One reason is because just as we have seen here in Philadelphia today -- similar events are being convened across the country for a singular purpose: to recognize the role of the National Health Service Corps – whose clinicians deliver much-needed health care services to people and regions that might otherwise lack access to them. Today kicks off the first-ever Corps Community Day, which is part of what is the 13th annual National Primary Care Week.

Moreover, we are marking today a true milestone in the history of the National Health Service Corps. As U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced just 30 minutes ago, for the first time, the NHSC includes more than 10,000 primary care clinicians serving communities across the nation with the greatest need.  

This historic number is a result of an additional $300 million in financial support that has allowed the Corps to make more than 5,600 loan repayment and scholarships awards to primary care providers in the past year alone – some of those providers are right here at this site, Maria de los Santos Community Health Center.  

I’m really pleased to be here today, HHS is the parent agency of the Health Resources and Services Administration, or HRSA, where I serve as the administrator.

HRSA is the primary Federal agency charged with improving access to health care services for people who are uninsured, isolated or medically vulnerable. In HRSA, we manage a more than $9.1 billion portfolio of 80-plus grant programs in partnership with state, local and community organizations, foundations, clinical providers, like the NHSC clinicians here today, universities, research centers and others. HRSA helps to train future doctors, nurses and other health professionals and place them in areas of the country where health resources are especially scarce. 

HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield with NHSC Scholar Scott Holmes

HRSA Administrator Mary K. Wakefield, PhD, RN, and newly-awarded NHSC Scholar Scott Holmes, a first-year student at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Clinicians of the National Health Service Corps really make a profound difference. Providers like Jaclyn Greising, a physician assistant at this health center who will speak here today, is one of them. 

Jackie and others like her deliver services that improve health and quality of life across populations.  They make an impact in their communities far beyond what occurs in the exam room.  They are community leaders.  They are the individuals setting up community health fairs, starting support groups and thinking of innovative approaches to reach the communities they serve.

And, as the awards I just mentioned attest, the good news is that the NHSC program is dynamic and is growing.

The Corps consists of physicians, advanced practice nurses, dentists, psychologists, physician assistants and others who agree to provide primary care in medically underserved areas for at least two years in exchange for academic debt relief.

Investments and program improvements through the Affordable Care Act have helped increase the number of National Health Service Corps clinicians serving across the country by more than 250 percent in the last three years. In the coming year, NHSC clinicians will provide health care services to more than 10.5 million patients in underserved areas.

The Affordable Care Act funding allows the NHSC to help increase access to health care while supporting local jobs and economic growth in communities nationwide. For example, the addition of one primary care physician in a rural community generates approximately $1.5 million in annual revenue and helps to create 23 jobs. 

NHSC clinicians are the next generation of health professionals for a new generation of health care – the Department’s most visible boots on the ground. Their service reflects the critical work NHSC professionals do at Health Centers like this one across the nation. They serve their communities in ways that few other people do.

The NHSC works like this: the program pays down student loans or other academic debts in exchange for a promise to practice in an underserved community for a set period. Clinicians earn a competitive salary while they serve. Those who join today receive up to $60,000 in academic debt servicing for a two-year commitment -- and up to $170,000 for five years and loan repayments are tax-free.

But at the heart of this program, what the Corps is really all about is access to primary health care. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.  New professionals get the loan repayments or scholarships they need to pay off loans quickly. Communities get the providers we need in areas where their talents can do the most good and best of all, patients get access to quality health care.

The goal is to recruit health care providers to an area where they are likely to stay for many years, and to do that you have to match the right person to the right site. When choosing where to practice, providers are considering whether or not a community feels like home, has opportunities for their spouse, and has schools and activities for their children.  

The medical director of this health center, Dr. Scott McNeal, is an excellent example of what I’m referring to – he is an NHSC alumnus who has stayed;  I understand his spouse is also a former Corps member; I understand she serves as the medical director at a nearby site.  Together they illustrate how NHSC clinicians often become integral parts of the community, not simply providers who see patients.  

Now, thanks to the ACA investments, it’s easier than ever to serve in the Corps.

Students pursuing a degree in certain health professions can – like the recipients of the awards just announced - receive a scholarship now and serve later.

Providers who have completed their training apply for work directly with an approved site of their choice. Corps members who received scholarships can serve and earn competitive salaries in any number of locations where need is great.

And you don’t have to look far to find another vivid illustration of how NHSC service can lead to big things!  U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, as a student, helped defray her medical school educational expenses by joining the NHSC, which reimbursed her tuition in exchange for a three-year commitment to practice in a medically underserved community.  

The Surgeon General’s NHSC experience is an exceptional one and, like her, the opportunities the Corps has to offer can  profoundly affect anyone’s life. Those opportunities are many and varied.  

Because they are, there is ample reason for optimism going forward. We are improving access to care, making it more attractive to join the NHSC, and taking active steps to train and secure the health professions workforce.

I urge everyone here to consider becoming a part of it!  You can learn more by visiting the National Health Service Corps website.

Thanks for the opportunity for me to be here and, on behalf of the Secretary, thanks for all you do on behalf of the individuals and communities you serve.