CALIFORNIA — Next year, California doctors will have access to a federal student loan debt forgiveness program that has been available to physicians in most states after federal education officials adopted new rules that were championed by Representative Josh Harder of Tracy.

The changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program are expected to attract thousands of doctors over the coming decade to parts of the state that have a shortage of physicians, such as the Central Valley and rural areas of California.

“It’s not going to fix the shortage overnight, but it will bring physicians that are desperately needed, such as those from the fields of mental health, cardiologists, emergency room doctors, and primary care doctors,” Harder said in an interview with Inside California Politics.

The congressman started his push for the changes in 2019 to fix a quirk that didn’t allow some California and Texas doctors that worked for non-profit hospitals through a contractor from participating in the debt forgiveness program, which forgives loans to people that work in public service jobs for 10 years.

Over time, he says the lack of help resulted in a physician shortage in some areas because newly graduated doctors would leave for better-paying cities and states in order to pay off their loans, which could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I don’t blame a doctor that has $200,000 in medical debt for moving to the Bay Area or Los Angeles or out of state to provide for their families, but we need high-quality medical care here just as much as anywhere else in the country,” Harder said, referencing California’s Central Valley.

The new rules adopted by the Secretary of Education sets the stage for more California doctors to begin applying for the program in 2023, allowing them to serve in more areas and not have to tackle their medical debt on their own.

Harder says that it was the covid-19 pandemic that exposed the need for more medical care professionals in areas outside of the major urban centers.

“During the pandemic, intensive care units were 100% full, not because we didn’t have the bed space, but because we didn’t have the nurses and doctors to take care of people,” Harder said. 

“We’re going to be able to fix this program and bring new doctors to the Central Valley over the next couple of years. That’s a big deal,” Harder continued.

The congressman said in the interview that, even with this change there is still more to be done to bring medical services to California’s interior, and he commented on one step that would make a big difference.

“We still need a medical school in the Central Valley.”