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An aggressive and far-reaching loan repayment program to address the growing shortages of physicians and other healthcare professionals was unveiled by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoaʻs John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) Hawaiʻi/Pacific Basin Area Health Education Center (AHEC) and the State of Hawaiʻi.

The Healthcare Education Loan Repayment Program (HELP) provides an unprecedented $30 million in educational loan debt repayment to certain health professionals licensed or otherwise certified to practice in and provide care to patients in Hawaiʻi. The state expects HELP to improve recruitment and retention of providers serving vulnerable populations, and those in medically underserved areas of Hawaiʻi, while lessening the burden of large educational debt.

“These shortages were most evident during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but continue today,” said JABSOM Interim Dean Lee Buenconsejo-Lum. “HELP expands loan repayment eligibility to so many working hard to keep the people of Hawaiʻi healthy. We hope that reducing their debt burden will help keep these professionals working here, and will also encourage our JABSOM graduates and others with Hawaiʻi ties to return home to practice.”

HELPing more healthcare professionals

HELP builds off the decade-old federally-funded Hawaiʻi State Loan Repayment Program by reaching a larger group of healthcare professionals. In exchange for two years of full-time or half-time service in Hawaiʻi, a wide range of healthcare professionals will qualify for loan repayments starting at $12,500 and capped at $50,000.

The eligible amount varies depending on their profession, location of their practice, and educational indebtedness. All must provide care to or work for organizations that provide care to at least 30% of patients who are publicly insured.

HELP prioritizes specialists in primary care and behavioral health, along with those practicing in rural areas (defined by the state as all neighbor islands and in the communities of Waimānalo, Waiʻanae, Wahiawā, Hauʻula, Lāʻie, Kahuku, Haleʻiwa and Waialua on Oʻahu).

The program was developed by JABSOM, the Healthcare Association of Hawaiʻi, and the Department of Health and funded by the Hawaiʻi State Legislature.

“The current federally-funded and state-matched Hawaiʻi State Loan Repayment Program, has one of the highest retention rates in the country with 65% of loan repayers continuing to practice in their health professional shortage area and underserved community sites, and 80% of program completers still practicing in Hawaiʻi,” said Hawaiʻi-Pacific Basin AHEC Director, Kelley Withy. “Our program works and we are grateful to the 2023 legislature for continuing the matching funds for this federal program that targets the highest shortage areas and specialties. However, we know there is a severe shortage of multiple physician specialties, worse on the neighbor islands and rural Oʻahu, as well as critical nursing, allied health and behavioral health shortages.”

The announcement was made at AHEC’s annual Workforce Summit at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on September 9. Nearly 1,000 attended to brainstorm ideas to boost the number of physicians in Oʻahu, and many believe HELP will be the driving force in bringing medical professionals home.

For more information and to apply for the HELP, visit the website.

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