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Originally published Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 3:00 PM

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Editorial: Solving Washington’s primary-care workforce shortage

Senate Bill 5615 is a creative way to fund a much-needed program to recruit and retain health-care providers in Washington state.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE Legislature should pass a bill that will help to recruit and keep more primary, dental and mental-health providers in Washington state.

Federal health reforms kick in Jan. 1. The likely expansion of Medicaid means about 300,000 more Washingtonians will be added to the rolls. They will need access to care, despite a shortage of providers in every single county.

Sponsored by state Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, Senate Bill 5615 would authorize the Washington Student Achievement Councilto raise private funds for its Health Professional Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program.

The state’s share of this nationwide program was drastically reduced because of budget deficits, from $4.3 million in 2008 to $530,000 in 2010. Since the 1980s, the program has placed more than 546 health-care providers in 38 counties statewide.

In exchange for working in rural or underserved areas, the program pays down $2,000 to $35,000 per year of service in loans for at least two years.

Between 2007 and 2008, the state granted 27 scholarships to primary-care students and 63 loan-repayment awards. By 2011, the numbers dwindled to zero and 22, respectively.

Meanwhile, tuition rates have soared and most doctors start their careers with record debt, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The median debt per graduate is $170,000.

As a result, some forgo primary-care practices and enter higher-paying specialty fields.

Frockt argues that initiating public-private partnerships with foundations is a different way to help recruit and retain a much-needed workforce in the absence of state investment.

A similar model has worked well for the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship program for STEM and health-care majors. Companies such as Boeing and Microsoft donate millions to that fund.

SB 5615 sailed through the Senate. The House should do the same.

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