A new federal program that helps clinicians repay their student loans is also working to fight the opioid epidemic.
An average of 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Illinois, more than 2,000 people died of an overdose from opioids in 2017, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“We believe the program will expand access to substance use disorder treatment to help prevent overdose deaths,” said Israil Ali, director of the Division of the National Health Service Corps, which runs the program. “(It) will also strengthen the country’s behavioral health workforce and benefit communities that need those services.”
Qualified clinicians who work full time at an NHSC-approved facility treating substance use disorders can apply to receive up to $75,000 in student loan repayment through the program; part-time clinicians can apply to get up to $37,500. There are 145 eligible facilities in Illinois, including 75 in Cook County – 10 of which belong to Cook County Health.
For more than a decade, Cook County Health has been treating substance use disorders, including opioid addictions, with medication-assisted treatment – a combination of medication and behavioral health support.
Last year, the county recorded more than 5,000 encounters with patients seeking medication-assisted treatment for addiction in its health centers, according to Dr. Juleigh Nowinski Konchak, a family and community medicine doctor at Cook County Health.
“We have a long history of serving a vulnerable population,” she said. “And we’re seeing this population hit by this (opioid) crisis.”
Konchak says the NHSC program is a “shot in the arm of energy” for clinicians working in primary care settings, especially those serving in safety net hospitals. “They have thousands and thousands of dollars in student loans,” she said. “I think (the program) is a wonderful way to support them … or alleviate those burdens.”
She also thinks the program will encourage primary care clinicians to begin offering substance use disorder services to their patients. “It’s really a nice opportunity to support our primary care doctors and to expand care,” she said.
The NHSC hopes to award the loan to 1,000 clinicians this year and continue the program next year, Ali said. “We hope to incentivize those providers who are currently in the pipeline and newly minted professionals to go into these underserved communities to support the substance use disorder epidemic,” he said.
The application is open to clinicians working in primary medical care, as well as behavioral and mental health. Physicians, nurses and licensed clinical social workers are among the eligible disciplines. The deadline to apply is Feb. 21.