The State is moving forward with its loan repayment plan | New

BOSTON — A new state program will repay college loans for mental health and addictions counselors to help ease a chronic shortage of medical professionals.

A $4 billion pandemic relief bill signed by Governor Charlie Baker in December 2021 included $110 million for a college loan repayment program for mental health professionals who work in health centers community.

Those eligible for the loan repayment program include psychiatrists, psychologists, registered nurses, and nurse practitioners, as well as others who work in behavioral health care settings. The move aims to recruit and retain new workers in a sector of the state health care system that has traditionally been among the lowest paid.

The state Department of Health and Human Services is currently negotiating a contract with a private company to run the new program, which will also be available to addiction counselors, recovery coaches and others who work in psychiatric units in acute care hospitals or in a psychiatric patient hospital.

In a letter to legislative leaders, Health and Human Services Secretary MaryLou Sudders said the agency expects eligible workers to be able to apply for loan repayment funds from the state by the end of the year”.

Under this plan, psychiatrists will be eligible for up to $300,000 in loan repayment if employed full-time and $150,000 if employed part-time. Psychologists can get up to $150,000 in repaid loans if they work full-time, $75,000 if they work part-time.

Nurses, nurse practitioners, advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, and social workers with master’s degrees who work in mental health facilities can get between $25,000 and $50,000 in loan repayment. Workers in these professions with a bachelor’s degree can earn between $15,000 and $30,000.

Those who qualify must commit to working for at least four years in the state under a “service commitment” to receive the financial aid. This job can be with up to two different employers, depending on the state agency.

The 2021 law allowing loan repayments did not include professionals who work in addiction settings, but Sudders pushed for $15 million to be diverted from a state fund that collects settlement money of opioids to cover workers who provide acute care, stabilization services and residential treatment for substance use disorders.

The move was recently approved by the 21-member Opioid Recovery and Correction Fund Advisory Board, which manages the trust fund.

The fund, which was created by the state legislature in 2020, collects revenue from settlements between the state and drug manufacturers and distributors due to their role in fueling a national opioid crisis.

By the end of September, the fund’s total stood at more than $35 million, including $12 million raised in the past fiscal year, according to a Sept. 30 report from the board.

Proponents of the plan say it will help attract and retain more addiction workers, which will expand treatment and prevention options for those looking to get sober.

Sudders said the state will work with the successful bidder to administer the program so that — “to the maximum extent permitted by law” — service company loan repayments are not treated as taxable income.

The rollout of the program comes as the Biden administration kicks off the application process for its student loan forgiveness program, which will allow eligible borrowers to apply for up to $20,000 in debt forgiveness.

Biden’s plan calls for canceling up to $10,000 in debt for those earning less than $125,000 a year and up to $20,000 for those who received Pell grants.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected]

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