Don’t shortchange SLRP

Why it’s essential to increase funding for the State Loan Repayment Program for health care providers

“Attaining a strong healthcare workforce and encouraging young professionals to remain in New Hampshire is vital to the state’s economic growth,” Governor Sununu remarked during a recent roundtable to address our state’s infamous workforce shortage. “How do we not only get the best people here, but how do you retain them?”

The NH State Loan Repayment Program, or “SLRP,” is the state’s solution to a workforce deficiency dilemma and the most effective tool for practices in rural and under-served areas of the state to attract and retain providers.

It allows primary care, dental and behavioral health clinicians to repay their student loans in exchange for a three-year commitment (two-years for part-time clinicians) to work at an approved site in a high-need, under-served area. The program is a critical resource for practices in rural and under-served areas because it is more difficult to attract and retain clinicians in these areas of our state.

Health care reform is driving practices to provide “integrated care,” which means integrating mental health, substance abuse and primary care services under one roof. This reform is supported by research recognizing the effects mental illness and substance use disorders have on physical health and the rising awareness to reduce stigma around mental illness.

Studies show that 20 percent of primary care office visits are mental health related, and almost 70 percent of adults with behavioral health disorders do not get behavioral health treatment. Behavioral health and primary care workforce challenges go hand-in-hand.

The type of clinicians who provide behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment in primary care settings are often the same. Therefore, solutions to workforce challenges should address the full continuum of the healthcare workforce to meet the needs of the Granite State.

Organizations have reported almost 200 provider vacancies to Bi-State Primary Care Association’s recruitment center; approximately 70 percent of vacancies reported in New Hampshire are for behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment. Every vacancy is a valuable resource we cannot afford to lose, especially amidst an opioid epidemic that is devastating families and communities throughout the Granite State.

SLRP is currently at a standstill: All the funds have been allocated, so there is no money to cover more providers. As the wait list grows, so does the likelihood that these providers will seek work at out-of-state practices (e.g., in the greater Boston area), where they can receive higher wages and private loan repayment.

Advocacy for the SLRP is strong among NH leadership: Sen. Jeb Bradley and others in the Legislature have introduced Senate Bill 590, which adds $1.1 million a year to SLRP for two years, and Governor Sununu is working tirelessly on a long-term solution to New Hampshire’s behavioral health workforce shortage, publicly emphasizing the SLRP’s role.

We respectfully ask you to join us in supporting the passage of SB 590. It benefits all of us by attracting healthcare providers to New Hampshire and encouraging them to stay.

Tess Stack Kuenning is president and CEO of Bi-State Primary Care Association.

Categories: Opinion