South Carolina was the first state to create a student loan forgiveness program designed to attract doctors who specialize in helping senior citizens.
The program will forgive up to $35,000 of students loan debt incurred during medical school for each year of specialized fellowship training in geriatric medicine undertaken by successful applicants.
Dr. Victor Hirth chairs the committee which reviews applications. He says $35,000 helps doctors to make up their minds. “The average medical school debt now is a little more than $120,000,” he says. “That’s for public universities. For private universities it’s higher.”
In its four years of operation,the program has brought 15 additional geriatric specialists to the state, increasing the overall number by 30 percent.
Doctors or medical residents must agree to maintain a geriatric practice in South Carolina for at least five years.
Hirth says the program is particularly important now since the first of 78 million baby boomers are reaching retirement age and the nation will face a critical shortage of doctors specializing in geriatrics. He says by 2030 the number of such specialists is expected to double.
Dr. Hirth says recruiting students and doctors into geriatrics can be challenging and takes a multi-prong approach. “The job satisfaction for those in that specialty is at the top of all specialties,” he says. “But the average salary is near the bottom of all specialties.”
Hirth says South Carolina has been recognized as a model for such legislation. “Legislation has now been passed in California and New York and it’s also being used as a model for federal legislation,” he says.
Additionally, Hirth says he would like to see geriatric scholarships in medical school, and specialist loan foriveness for a larger amount, say $75,000 up to $150,000.
The program is administered by the Lt. Governor’s Office on Aging. and Lt. Governor Andre Bauer says having more geriatric specialists will actually save money over time by giving seniors the medical attention they need. “We’ve got to govern for the future, not tomorrow, but the problem is that governing for the future doesn’t get you re-elected,” he says. “So few legislators want to do it. But I’m so glad that our legislators have for several years stepped up and funded this program. It continues to show that South Carolina is a progressive state.”
Bauer added that the program was not funded in the governor’s budget proposal.