Loan Initiative Lures Clinicians to Practice, Stay in Jersey

Beth Fitzgerald | March 26, 2012 | Health Care
NJ program helps doctors and dentists who work in underserved areas pay off student loans

A state program that repays up to $120,000 in student loan debt for primary care clinicians who agree to work at least four years in medically underserved areas of New Jersey is having success recruiting and retaining healthcare workers in communities where they are needed the most, from cities like Newark and Camden to rural Gloucester County.

Kimberly Benberry is among the clinicians attracted to New Jersey by the offer. A Howard University dental school graduate with about $200,000 in student loans, Benberry took a job in 2001 as a staff dentist at Complete Care, a federally qualified health center with locations in Cumberland, Gloucester, and Cape May counties. Complete Care is among 20 centers in New Jersey that receive federal and state funding to increase access to medical care for low-income patients.

The student loan repayment provided by the state is over and above the salary clinicians negotiate when they go to work in an underserved area. Benberry was able to qualify for the $120,000 maximum by working four years at Complete Care. And out of her dentist’s salary, she was able to repay the portion of her student loans that wasn’t covered by the New Jersey loan redemption program. After four years, Benberry was completely free from student debt.

Benberry decided to stay in New Jersey after she completed the loan redemption program. She still works at Complete Care and is now its dental director. Along with her administrative duties, Benberry continues to see patients each day, many South Jersey farm workers and their families.

“I decided to stay because I enjoy the work, I understand the mission of the organization, and I feel appreciated,” Benberry said.

The loan redemption program is an effective recruiting tool Benberry uses when hiring her dental staff. Three of her staff dentists came through the state loan redemption program, and a dental hygienist is getting student loans repaid under a similar federal program.

“Often you come out of dental school with a huge loan cloud over you, and it can be very overwhelming,” Benberry said. “I have a very intense appreciation for the loan redemption program.”

State law created the Primary Care Practitioner Loan Redemption Program of New Jersey in 1992. Applicants are expected to commit a minimum of two years to the program, which is overseen by the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority.

The program is succeeding at its ultimate goal, which is to increase medical care in underserved areas, according to a 2007 report on the program’s first 15 years. That report found that 222 primary care clinicians enrolled in the program through 2007, and that 85 percent continued to work in underserved areas of New Jersey after completing their work requirement. Of the 222 clinicians, there were 110 primary care physicians, 100 dentists, four nurse practitioners, two nurse midwives and, six physician assistants.

Sharon W. Bryant is director of the loan redemption program, which is based in Newark at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Since the program’s inception, it has been able to award loan repayments contracts to clinicians each year, even through the level of funding from the state budget has fluctuated, she said.

In fiscal 2010, the program received $2 million in funding. The following year, fiscal 2011, no new money was appropriated, but Bryant said the program still had sufficient funds to continue making new awards. In the current fiscal year, new funding of $1.125 million was provided, and for fiscal 2013, Gov. Chris Christie is recommending $1.5 million: $1.125 million for primary care practitioners and $375,000 for student loan redemptions for nursing school faculty.

In the current fiscal year, the program has so far made 11 awards: three physicians, five dentists, two nurse practitioners and one physician assistant, Bryant said.

Benberry, the South Jersey dentist, said she could probably earn more in an affluent area, but is inspired by the work she is doing. Complete Care continues to develop new programs “that reach deeper into the community.” An example is Smile Smart, which provides transportation to Complete Care’s dental locations so children can receive dental care during the school day. “If you have an idea that will benefit the public, this is a great place to see that idea really manifest itself,” she said.

The dentist is working with the obstetricians at Complete Care to improve prenatal health. Research has shown that improving the mother’s periodontal health reduces the risk of low birth weight, so dental care is being provided as part of prenatal care. “These kinds of programs keep me active in the community and keep me challenged,” she said.

“At the end of every visit with a patient, I feel that my service is appreciated and that my service to the community means something. That feedback is probably why I stay.”