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Some state help for healthcare workers and students

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More than $6 million is on the table from the state of Florida, in a program to encourage qualified medical professionals to practice in the state’s underserved locations.

It’s the Florida Reimbursement Assistance for Medical Education — or FRAME — program. It provides annual payments intended to offset the loans and educational expenses incurred by students, for studies leading to a medical or nursing degree and/or licensure along with licensures for advanced-practice registered nurses and physician assistants.

“Student loans are huge right now; not at all unusual for an individual to come out with their undergraduate loans and medical student loans, $500,000 and $600,000 in debt,” said Dr. Peter Jennings, chief medical officer for Ascension-Sacred Heart Health System.

The state of Florida petitioned a group to study what would be the overall projected position provider requirements for the state through the year 2035.

“What they found was that outside of the Miami-Dade area, it's pretty much health professional shortage all the way up to and including the panhandle,” Jennings said. “It was predicted that for the panhandle of Florida, they would be 75 family medicine physicians short. And that was in 2018.”

Four years later, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, that 75 figure, figures to be even higher.

“You all know what the population of the Panhandle has done since the Pandemic. I mean, it's just grown exponentially, said Jennings. “So if it was 75 in 2018, I would imagine it's somewhere close to 100 as of today.”

“My understanding of the FRAME program is that it's intended for underserved locations that would be accepting Medicaid reimbursement, as far as insurance,” said Dr. Crystal Bennett, director of the University of West Florida School of Nursing who adds that those costs can mount up quickly.

“Anywhere from [$3,000] to $5,000-$6,000 a semester, depending on what type of program,” she said. “And then graduate program would be likely double that. To my knowledge, [FRAME] is one of the first ones that is specifically addressing the need for qualified medical professionals in the state of Florida.”

Many, including Jennings, hope that FRAME will help alleviate some of Florida’s healthcare needs, such as the aforementioned nursing shortage.

Now, let’s talk money. The largest payout — $20,000 per year — goes to primary care doctors who agree to serve in an underserved rural area.

“Fifteen thousand [dollars] per year for advanced practice nurses, $10,000 per year for physician assistants, advanced registered nurses” he said. "Fifteen thousand per year for advanced practice nurses [who are] independent of having physician oversight. For those that work under a physician, it's $10,000 and for licensed practical nurses and registered nurses, it's $4,000 per year.”

Initially, about 515 recipients will take advantage of FRAME. The $6 million pot of money could grow. Case in point, medical schools were virtually unscathed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In fact, there were more medical student applicants during COVID than there had ever been before," said Jennings. "Now, part of that is the fact that back in the olden days when I was interviewing, I had to get my pickup truck and I dropped to do an interview face to face. Nowadays, it's all virtual.”

FRAME adds to similar programs from Uncle Sam which have been in place for a number of years, to get medical services to underserved areas “with a very similar loan repayment program,” added Jennings.

“So the overall global effect of this, I think, will be some positive, but not overwhelmingly filled the void that we anticipate to have over the next 10 to 15 years.”

Along with getting help in paying off their education, Bennett says another advantage would be the practical experience gained by practicing in Florida’s underserved areas.

“Some nursing programs, such as a baccalaureate degree program like the one we have at UWF, really is focused on our graduates,” Bennett said. “Not just serving in an acute care setting, but also serving the community that really are in great need of adequately qualified medical professionals.”

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.