Public Health Workers Make Case for Student Loan Repayment Program – Route Fifty

Workforce turnover in the Granville Vance Public Health Department in North Carolina typically ranges between 2% and 5% in a normal year. But the coronavirus pandemic has made the last two years have been anything but normal—the annual turnover rate stands at 12%, said Lisa Macon Harrison, the department’s director.

Testifying before a congressional committee Tuesday, Macon Harrison, who is also the president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, endorsed legislation that would establish a student loan repayment program for public health professionals. The goal of the program is to make it easier to recruit workers for what can often be stressful, low-paying jobs.

“The challenges we face are low salaries and salary bands that are not updated frequently at the state level,” Macon Harrison said during the hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “These loan repayment opportunities will help us with recruitment because they are better targeted to local public health in particular.”

The Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Act, which has bipartisan backing from committee members, would repay up to $35,000 in student loans a year for qualifying public health professionals. To be eligible, individuals would have to be in their final year of school pursuing a public health or health degree or have graduated within the past 10 years. Those individuals must go on to work for a local, state or tribal public health agency and sign a service commitment for at least three years in public health.

Programs like this are critical to help recruit new workers for public health agencies where many employees, burned out by the stress of the last two years, are expected to resign as the pandemic subsides, Macon Harrison said.  

“As many of my colleagues have stated, they are committed to staying the course during the crisis but will leave as soon as the threat is abated,” Macon Harrison said.

Their reasons for leaving vary, she said.

“For some it is the intense polarization and threats that drive them away,” she said. “Others are lured away by better paying opportunities and hospitals in the private sector while still others are leaving due to mental health.”

Six-Years of Funding

The House bill would provide $100 million in funding for loan repayment in fiscal 2021 and $75 million annually for five years after that. NACCHO estimates that $200 million in loan repayment funding would support approximately 6,000 public health jobs—an average of two staff per each local, state …….


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