Monica Johnson, Psy.D.
Licensed Psychologist and Behavioral Health Consultant
Cherokee Health Systems
If there is one thing that nearly all ECPs have in common, it is student debt. Many of us will spend several years trying to unload the financial burden of higher education. The good news is that there are programs to ease the financial strain. One such program is the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), which offers tax-exempt loan repayment assistance to Health Service Psychologists. Currently, mental health professionals earn up to $50,000 toward student loans in exchange for a two-year commitment at an NHSC approved site. If your loans exceed $50,000, you may apply for one year continuation contracts until all loans are paid. All NHSC sites are in health professional shortage areas (HPSA), which can be a geographic location, population group, or healthcare facility. Each site is given a HPSA score from 0-26, and the higher the score, the higher the need. Loan repayment is dispersed based on HPSA score until all funds for that year are depleted.
So, you might be asking, “What’s the catch?” It may be location. NHSC sites are located in both urban and rural areas, offering a wide range of geographic diversity. However, location flexibility may be necessary as openings may not be available in your preferred location when doing your job search. The good news is that NHSC site openings are posted year-round and a desired position can be accepted at any time. If the position is accepted outside of the NHSC application cycle, you can apply the following year for funding.
Another catch is if a site has a low HPSA score, there is the chance that funds will run out and repayment totals will not be obtained for that given year. NHSC approved sites and job openings are available on their website and acceptance of a position is required prior to applying for loan repayment. The application cycle for NHSC occurs in the first quarter of each year (typically between January-March). Proof of licensure and loan amounts is required. Consolidation loans take several outstanding debts and consolidate them into one loan, typically for convenience, and to potentially obtain lower monthly payments. It is important to note that if your consolidated loans include non-educational debt (e.g. medical loans, parent plus loans, credit card debt, etc.) no portion of the loan will be eligible for repayment.
When I first applied, I remember it taking a few phone calls to get all the necessary information from my loan servicer, but it was largely a stress-free process. NHSC provides useful information and FAQs in the application packet and on the website. They are also readily available by phone or email to answer questions. Once your application is approved, it takes up to 90 days to receive funding and afterwards a lump sum is deposited into your bank account. At the end of the two years, payment history detailing that all funds were spent on loan repayment needs to be shown. There are severe penalties for not completing the contract (e.g. leaving the site prior to contract completion) so the application packet needs to be read carefully.
My personal experience with NHSC has been phenomenal. I was able to secure a position at a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in a small city in the Southeast. It is of note that a NHSC site cannot reduce your pay because you are participating in the program. So, I am paid a competitive salary, receiving loan repayment, and doing work I enjoy. As an additional benefit of being located in a HPSA, I know that the work I am doing has a significant impact on the community. I am able to provide quality care to patients, who may not have received treatment otherwise, while obtaining loan assistance.
For more information about NHSC, please visit https://www.nhsc.hrsa.gov/loanrepayment/index.html.